From The Commercial Appeal comes this op-ed column by the highly respected educator Fred Johnson:
A city school district where students are predominantly black and poor. A county school district where students tend to be white and middle-class. City voters, fed up with paying taxes for city and county schools, vote to merge the city system with the county’s.
Sound familiar? It happened in Chattanooga in 1997, and contrary to the scare tactics of some opponents who claimed it would be a disaster, the school merger in Hamilton County went pretty well. Chattanooga has valuable lessons for us in Memphis, as does the academic research on school consolidation from around the country.
Like here, school unification was bitterly contested in Hamilton County. But the new unified school board hired Jesse Register, the respected veteran of a city-county schools merger in North Carolina, to design and oversee an orderly transition. The transition went off “without a substantial hitch,” according to a 2006 article in Education Week.
That article credits the school merger for a number of education improvements in Chattanooga. It “widened the resources available,” which especially helped low-achieving schools. Just as important, it triggered new openness to change and innovation by parents and teachers. Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation in Hamilton County, called it “a catalyst for greater community involvement and investment.”
A 2007 Annenberg Institute report detailed how the merged system collaborated with businesses and colleges to boost college attendance rates. It also described how parents and educators collaborated in using grant money to improve high-school rigor with theme-based “academies.”
Nor is this a unique assessment. In supporting school unification for Memphis, a Dec. 22 editorial in the Times Free Press of Chattanooga declared:
“(T)he evidence here confirms that the merger has focused more effective attention on student performance in urban schools. Efforts to improve teaching standards, raise school test scores and graduation rates, and programs involving magnet schools and minority-to-majority transfers have improved achievement countywide and insured fairer focus on children and schools previously left behind.”
School unity is both a nationwide and statewide trend. In Tennessee, 12 city school districts have merged with their county schools in the past few decades. Indeed, today Memphis is the only urban school district in the state that continues to be separate from its county district.
Each school merger is different, and the academic research shows that school merger is not a panacea. Studies show significant savings in administration costs, but fewer savings elsewhere. They also suggest an “optimum size” for school districts that is lower than the current size of Memphis City Schools. This suggests that if we do merge systems, we should move to a system with four to five area school districts, each with a little over 30,000 students, run by a superintendent but overseen by a unified school board and a school chancellor. This model has worked well in New York City and has been discussed in recent years in Memphis by local leaders.
The point is that school merger can work. We have recent examples in which it has worked, and models to draw upon. Opponents of school unity will tell you it has been a disaster everywhere it has been tried, but that’s just not true. They speak from fear, but we should vote from hope and for unity.
Dr. Fred Johnson served on the Shelby County Schools board from 2006 until 2008. Before he retired in 1999, Dr. Johnson worked as a teacher and administrator in Shelby County Schools, including an appointment as interim superintendent. After he retired from Shelby County Schools, he also served as a central office administrator in Memphis City Schools for one year.