It’s a teachable moment for Memphis.

But it may be squandered because of failing grades given in deportment to Memphis City Schools and Memphis City Council, aided and abetted by the class troublemaker, a news media that always gravitates more to personalities than policies.

As a result, the much-needed debate about the fairness of Memphians paying twice for schools – in city and county taxes – while every one else in Shelby County pays only once – county taxes – remains unfinished.  There also hasn’t been a serious discussion about whether Memphis City Schools really needs funding for city government in the first place.

High Stakes

Whether City of Memphis funds city schools has been a political tug of war that never would have happened if Council members had not said enough is enough and refused to fund the school district.  After 20 years of on and off summits on school funding with nothing changed, the Council forced the issue.

It’s a high stakes game which remains to be ultimately decided by the Tennessee Supreme Court, but it was the right hand for the Council to play.  It did trigger the development of so-called “single source funding,” meaning that Shelby County Government would provide all public funding for city and county school districts.  Memphians would be just like citizens of Germantown and Bartlett: they would only pay once for schools.

Progress is being made on the single source funding agreement, but there is an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude in the Shelby County Administrative Building these days about it.  It’s an idea whose time has come, but if Memphis City Council wins in the state’s highest court, school funding reform will remain inequitable for Memphis’s citizens.

Great Teachers

For decades, it was the prevailing legal opinion in both city and county governments that as the constitutionally mandated government for schools, Shelby County Government had no choice but to fund schools.  It was also the opinion of mayors on both sides of the Civic Center Plaza that Memphis’s funding was discretionary and it could stop it at any time.

To complicate things, state law required that funding could never go down from the previous year.  If it were not commonly believed that city government could pull the plug on its funding at any time, city officials would never have increased its funding threefold.

It was hard enough politically for City Council to weather charges that it didn’t care about the children of Memphis, but the school district’s political position improved dramatically when Superintendent Kriner Cash won the highly-coveted, highly-competitive $90 million grant from Gates Foundation to improve teachers.  “Getting an effective teacher cannot be a lottery ticket for our students,” Dr. Cash said.  “This is simply unacceptable.”

Coming Soon to a School Near You

Improvements can’t come too soon, because higher state standards will push almost every school in the city district into failing status later in the year, ending the misleading announcements by the Tennessee Department of Education that about 85% of all Tennessee students were proficient in their subjects.  What they didn’t tell was that to be judged proficient only required a student to get 40% of the questions right .

In other words, in the midst of the euphoria about the Gates Foundation grant and the crisis that’s about to hit with higher standards, it’s hard for Memphis City Council to cut through with its message about fair taxes.  In addition, there’s been no serious debate about why Memphis City Schools needs the city money at all.

It’s a curious anomaly of budget hearings here that schools never undergo the tough questioning that is common for other government agencies.  In the media, Council members never succeed because school officials are treated as educators – despite an elected board of commissioners – and City Council members as politicians.

The Real Test Questions

The irony of all this gnashing of teeth about city funding is that over a decade, the number of workers at Memphis City Schools grew about 50% and the budget increased 125%.  This took place while enrollment actually dropped 5%.  This compares with city government itself, where the number of workers remained flat, the budget increased 45%, and city population declined slightly.

And yet, Memphis City Council is reticent to ask these kinds of essential questions, because its members know that it will trigger another blast of attacks on their commitment to children.

In truth, Council’s dereliction of duty is not in asking tough questions to school administrators, but it would be in failing to do so.  Momentum has swung to Memphis City Schools, but it’s just possible that there are questions even more fundamental than whether city government is trying to shortchange our children – like whether current school funding is simply unfair and whether the district’s budget ought to be smaller than its current $1 billion, just over one-third larger than the budget of city government itself.

This was previously published in Memphis magazine as its City Journal column