The Tennessee Department of Education will refuse to fund Memphis City Schools which could force the district to shut its doors which means that the state has to operate the Memphis school system. Yeah, that’s going to happen.
The educational bureaucrats in Nashville already proven that they prefer to avoid Memphis City Schools like the plague, as proven by the preferential treatment and special attention that Nashville schools have received when it hit the high-priority list. Here, when that happened, the strategy for DOE was essentially to do the minimum allowed by law, wish us well and to get the heck out of town.
We wonder they’ll do next year when the schools that don’t meet state standards swells to around 75 because of Governor Bredesen’s leadership to toughen the standards so that they actually mean something.
But back to the funding issue, ultimately, it is the state that has the Constitutional responsibility to provide public education. Not city or county. The State of Tennessee.
The Tennessee Attorney General has said it clearly: “The State has a constitutional duty to provide for a system of free public education for all K-12 school children.”
Painted In A Corner
To punctuate the meaning of that sentence, in a deposition given about a year ago, the Tennessee Commissioner of Education acknowledged that if the state withheld its funds, it would still have the legal responsibility for making sure Memphis students are educated. If it did not, it would break federal as well as state law.
So, here’s what the state is doing when its educational bureaucrats threaten to withhold $423 million in state funding from Memphis City Schools: it would dynamite Memphis City Schools, but in turn, it would be forced to pick up the pieces and provide the public education for our students that the law requires.
As we’ve written before, that’s why state threats are essentially saber-rattling of the silliest kind, coming primarily as a political tit for tat in the wake of City Council’s cut in school funding.
Swift – Jonathan, That Is
You know our position. Memphis City Council showed courage and political will in refusing to continue the inequitable taxation of their constituents. Yes, we care about the 25% of us who have school age kids, but more to the point, 100% of Memphis taxpayers deserve to have relief from a system that is both regressive and inequitable, a toxic mix that poisons the city’s ability to compete on a level playing field with its suburbs.
We predict that the Council won’t blink in the face of the oneupsmanship shown by Memphis City Schools by including the former amount of city funding in its upcoming budget, while conjuring up the dire specter once again of a collapsing school system.
However, in his revealing deposition, Commissioner Webb said that if “an approved budget is not submitted, we will begin in short order to put together a task force or a working group of people involving all stakeholders…to begin to put together an emergency response plan so that the students in the City of Memphis are not left without a free and appropriate public education.”
New Thinking About An Old Idea
When it reduced school funding, City Council members acted in keeping with their responsibility for setting the tax rate and setting the budgets for city services.
It makes no sense (and surely there ought to be some layer of good sense in the law) that local taxpayers, through its Memphis City Council, lose all rights to determine its tax structure, its ability to pay for services and to align priorities to funding and ultimately and to have the ultimate flexibility to move around money in its budgets in times of crisis.
Here’s the problem: because of our state’s regressive tax structure and our anomalous bulge in children, all public services are fighting over a pie whose size is fixed and so every agency feels compelled to fight for its share. It’s a system destined to breed conflict and produce political dogfights over the crumbs falling off the table.
As a result, we appreciate Memphis City Schools’ feeling that it has to fight for its share, but what could happen if its leaders told state government that it agrees with City of Memphis and that tax fairness to Memphians is of paramount importance. It’s a dream that will never occur, but at the least, school officials should become vehicles for a new understanding that education is not a municipal service. If it were otherwise, all other cities in Shelby County would be paying for schools, too.
The Wrong Rx
The state law that forbids government from reducing its previous year’s school funding may sound on the surface like a commitment to kids, but in the end, it’s a prescription that erodes the kind of self-determination that every government deserves. After all, the law would require government to keep the same level of funding even as enrollment drops.
Taken to its logical – and most ludicrous – conclusion, this reading of the law would mean that despite the declining enrollment at Memphis City Schools, Memphians should never have the option of reducing its funding even if there are fewer students. In the end, perhaps all of us should be paying more for our schools, but neither district has made a convincing case that more money will cure what ails the two districts, one that is not as bad as people say and the other is not as good.