Memphis City Schools says it may cut funding to charter schools.

So what else is new?

The district’s been shortchanging the charter schools for years.

Because of it, we’ve always found it perfectly logical that Memphis City Schools’ students score terribly on the math section of the ACT.  After all, if the district itself can’t add and subtract, why should its kids?

But the city schools’ threat to cut funding is instructive for another reason.  It finally puts to rest the conventional wisdom that district’s leaders aren’t politicians but educators.


This threat is all about politics and nothing about education.  And in trying to be clever, Memphis City Schools only succeeds in making itself look manipulative and naïve and with the political acumen of a Student Council president.

Clearly, the district, in its fight with Memphis City Council to restore its lost funding, labors under the misperception that the charter schools have access to the check books of the Memphis business community and philanthropies.  So, the notion is that in cutting charter funding, the district thinks it forces influential charter supporters to the phone lines to demand that Council members give Memphis City Schools the money it wants.

Here’s what the blackmail note said: the district threatens to cut $470 for each charter school student for the three months of this fiscal year if it does not get the money the city cut from its budget for Memphis City Schools.  For example, in return for getting every member of its first graduating class a scholarship last year, city schools will reward Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering with a $280,000 funding cut.

City Council Chairman Harold Collins expressed it well: “The community ought to be outraged.”

Us Vs. Them

More to the point, however, the community should have been outraged for years when Memphis City Schools always gave the charter school students less funding per pupil although every student in the charter schools is a Memphis City Schools student.

The “us versus them” attitude that has exemplified the district’s approach to charters since the first one organized here.  The district has created a mythology about the charter schools that suggests that somehow they are costing traditional schools money and taking the best students.  Lost in the list of grievances is the fact that charter schools, although part of the city district, are denied other support such as capital funding.

Memphis City Schools’ funny math results in each charter school student getting $7,633 for his education each year, compared to $10,394 for each student in a traditional city school.

All this despite a column written by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “We have seen the potential that charter schools can have in getting results for American students. As the debate over public charter schools moves forward across the country and in Tennessee, we must stay focused on the core issue, which is educational quality, not government.”

Mosquitoes, Rats and Charters

To put the threat into perspective, just consider the district’s $280,000 cut to Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, the state’s first charter school.  Just consider that Memphis City Schools spends about $114,000 a hour, 24/7/265.  Average spending is about $2.7 million every day.   And the budget of Memphis Schools has increased 125% in the past decade although student enrollment is essentially flat.

We’ve all seen it before: Government agencies that propose budget cuts whose real purpose are not so much to reduce expenditures but to put political pressure on City Council members. It’s what was called the “mosquito spraying/rat control strategy” in the halls of government. Every time local legislative bodies talked about cutting the budget of the health department, officials there in turn announced that the cuts would require the end of mosquito spraying and rat control programs in Memphis neighborhoods.

At the same time, the administrative bureaucracy was untouched by any cuts in the budget.  Generally, it was a political maneuver that worked, instantly freezing city government in its tracks, conjuring up media reports of children in urban neighborhoods sharing playgrounds with rats and mosquitoes buzzing around the heads of students on their way home from school. No elected officials wanted to appear soft on grime.

Of course, the truth was that the Health Department could have cut the funding from myriad line items, but nothing was as certain to enflame grassroots concern as rats and mosquitoes.

Unequal People

Back to charter school students:  If there is one belief that we hold above all others as citizens of the United States, it is this: all people are created equal. And yet, that’s not true for the students attending Memphis charter schools. They are treated as second-class citizens by Memphis City Schools.

Charter schools are part of our city school district, and the legislative intent of the state law that allowed for the creation of Tennessee charter schools was that public school students – whether they attend traditional schools or charter schools – would have the same amount of public money spent for their education.

That is not the case.  It’s a cruel irony for parents of these charter school students.  Although they are determined to explore all opportunities for their children to succeed, they are penalized for their parenting when the city schools district doesn’t give their children an equal and fair share of the public money that pays for public education.

Put another way, charter school parents pay taxes to support education, but then their own children are short changed.

Mixed Message

State law is unequivocal.  It says that Memphis City Schools “shall allocate 100 percent of the state and local education funds to the charter school on (its) per pupil expenditure of the state and local funds.” That does not happen now, and in addition, charter students don’t get capital and facilities funding from the city district like other public schools.

While there is a dramatic difference in per pupil funding from Memphis City Schools, there is no difference between the students in traditional and charter schools.  The fact is that charter school students mirror the same demographics and the same economic backgrounds as city school students at large.  The overwhelming majority of students in charter schools is African-American and eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Also, charter schools do not recruit the best students.  In fact, charter schools can only accept students who attend or previously attended a school failing to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) according to the standards set by the Tennessee Department of Education or students who failed to test proficient in the previous year of the TCAP test.

By the way, the vast majority of parents with students in Memphis City Schools tell pollsters that they want more charter schools.