March 2011 Archives

Schools battle: It's only just begun

The picture on our front page shows Memphis City Schools board members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart jubilant over the landslide affirmation from Memphis voters of their move to surrender the charter to force schools consolidation with suburban schools. Like others, they would later be talking about the really hard, important work that lies ahead, referring to the process of unifying schools.

But judging from the reactions of suburban referendum opponents, the hard political fights are probably also just beginning for those in the city. Setting aside for a moment the issue of a unified school board and the state legislation from State Sen. Mark Norris, the battle over defining the meaning of Tuesday's results is going to continue.

Before the polls closed, Shelby County Election Commissioner Bill Giannini, a Republican from Lakeland, was using a line early and often about the "real winner" being the "I don't know vote." That ball got passed around a lot, with most suburban opponents constantly emphasizing that "only" about 72,000 of Memphis's 420,000-plus registered voters participated (or 17 percent). Amy Howell, owner of a public relations firm helping Norris, was on Twitter borderline dismissing the results because of the turnout.

There are many points to make here about turnout -- yesterday's rain surely depressed late turnout, though not by enough to claim it kept tens of thousands of people away. The odd timing of the March vote guaranteed a lot of people would bypass it, no matter the perceived importance of schools. The fact that very little money was spent trying to get people out to vote, by either side.

Once the referendum was set, the onus was always on those arguing MCS should stay intact. Fewer than 25,000 voted to keep the current system. It speaks volumes that people were not packing the polls to keep MCS from dissolving. Larger than that, a 67-percent vote for one county school system is going to give lawyers arguing the city's legal side a very powerful tool.  And the fact that a 72,000-person sample that appeared to represent a balanced cross-section of the city's population provides a very reliable gauge of public sentiment.

I sent out a tweet to Howell that said, "Good luck to the lawyer who argues this blowout somehow whiffed on capturing Memphis citizens' wishes." Her reply indicated there may have been a coordinated messaging effort underway among suburbanites: "Watch and learn! Time will tell. I think the entire thing is a disaster."

For a good read on the issues to untangle next, go read Sherri Drake Silence's fine piece from this morning.

War on teachers?



 NASHVILLE - For weeks, Tennessee teachers have charged that some members of the Tennessee legislature have declared war on them - given the array of bills moving through the General Assembly to outlaw collective bargaining by teachers, weaken tenure, end payroll deduction of their local association dues and other measures they say are purely punitive.


A freshman Republican state senator reinforced the "war" metaphor in a Senate floor speech Monday evening - likening lawmakers to "warriors" who are going to "change radically" what he called "government schools" in Tennessee - and who are "resolved" to "bend public education to our awe -- or break it all to pieces."


The remarks by Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, raised eyebrows -- and not just for the phrase "government schools," the term for public schools frequently used by critics and opponents of public education. Summerville, an adjunct instructor of history at Austin Peay State University, was swept into office last November by the GOP tidal wave, defeating longtime Democratic legislator Doug Jackson of Dickson for the only Republican pick up in the Senate, which now has a 20-13 GOP majority. (Jackson was so confident of his re-election that he barely campaigned and went duck hunting in Canada just before the election.)


Summerville was speaking to the Senate Monday evening on his first bill to reach the floor - an innocuous bill requiring state universities to give "equal access" to any professional educators' organization if access to students in teacher-training programs is granted to any other professional educators' organization. That's one of the bills being pushed by the Professional Educators of Tennessee, the much smaller conservative alternative to the Tennessee Education Association. The bill was so uncontroversial that it won Senate approval without a single "no" vote.


After Summerville finished describing the bill, he turned to his party's broader education agenda and said:


"I want to talk directly to my fellow teachers. This General Assembly is going to change radically the project of public - of government schools in Tennessee. Our doors, our minds, our hearts are open to teachers. If teachers and us, we, differ, let's differ with intellectual honesty. Approach us and argue with us based on evidence. Bring to bear facts and reason on your arguments.


"But whatever you do, change is going to come. You trained in one world. You will retire in another because we're going to make public schools anew. I want all of you fellow teachers to join with me in this cause, and with this General Assembly. That choice is yours.But make no mistake, the final responsibility is ours and we are warriors. To borrow and adapt some lines from Shakespeare's King Henry V (sic): Now are we well resolved and by God's help and yours and noble sinews of our power, we will bend public education to our awe or break it all to pieces."


At the end of the Monday night session, Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, addressed Summerville's remarks:


"The language that was used were things like 'warriors' and breaking things apart. This body works best when we work with people and not at people -- and in fact our education policy is best when we work with teachers as opposed to telling teachers here's what you're going to do. Our language up here does matter. It matters to people back home and it matters to me, and I certainly get concerned when I hear statements that don't seem to reflect the proper attitude that we should have in working with our constituents."


NPR national education reporter runs Memphis piece

NPR gave its national education reporter, Claudio Sanchez, a nearly five-minute segment on Monday's "Morning Edition" show. He begins with a quote from Shelby County Schools board member David Pickler and ends with a provocative clip from Thaddeus Matthews chastising suburban Afircan-Americans.

Here's the link to the piece.

And oh by the way, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday named Rhee's ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, the state's new education commissioner. Huffman was most recently a top executive at Teach for America and has a background as an education lawyer -- which will come in handy if and when the lawsuits start to fly over the public schools situation here in Shelby County.

Here is our story on Huffman. His hiring is yet another signal from Haslam that he will forcefully back non-traditional approaches to public education. It also is another indication he plans for the state to take an active role in the future of education for Memphis students, rather than stay away for fear of catching blame if things don't work out or the reform process turns into a mess.

If schools consolidation her moves forward, it will be fascinating to see whether Haslam and Huffman, with their predilection for non-traditional approaches, will support making current Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken leader of a new consolidated system. As you may know, Aitken received a big contract extension, from 2013 to 2015, in part because SCS board members wanted to make it difficult for any future entity, whether a Memphis-controlled county school board or transition planning commission, to remove Aitken (some are not happy about it). Many people who know Aitken rave about him, but his career trajectory has followed a very traditional public-school path. Educated at Henderson State with a master's from the University of Memphis, Aitken was a teacher and then a principal before getting into administration just three years ago. Buying out Aitken would cost taxpayers $400,000, not including unused vacation and remaining sick days; he also would get a $70,000 per year pension.

Former D.C. chief Michelle Rhee in Memphis

In case you haven't heard, Michelle Rhee, was in town speaking last night, at the Economic Club of Memphis. The controversial former superintendent of Washington, D.C., public schools, the founder of The New Teacher Project founder and current CEO of Students First, Rhee brought her often uncompromising vision of education policy to Memphis.

Here is our story on the appearance. WKNO-FM did a one-on-one interview with Rhee.

Breaking down early-voting after strong final day

If you haven't seen it yet, today's story breaks down final early-voting numbers. We had a solid final day, with more than 7,000 people showing up to push the final early-voting number close to 30,000. The final three days of turnout brought about half of those numbers, leading me to believe that a lot of people have truly been waiting to either a) make up their minds or b) make completely sure they were on the right side of the issue.

Based on that and the lack of robust campaigns pushing people to early vote for any sustained period, it's possible to see turnout exceeding 60,000 and possibly pushing 70,000. Now, that's still in the 15-17 percent turnout range, but the judges deciding the various litigation can say with certainty a large sample of the voting population determined the issue.

In terms of demographic breakdowns, registered black voters really pushed the final-day surge, with 4,038 showing up, or 55.6 percent of all final-day voters, compared to 1,438 (19.8 percent) for registered white voters and 1,784 for those registgered as "other," which usually entails more recently-reigistered voters who did not disclose race. The early-voting breakdown goes thusly -- 15,060 registered black voters (50.8 percent), 7,883 registered white voters (26.6 percent) and 6,730 registered as "other" (22.7 percent). If you figure the actual number of non-white and non-black voters here is about 5 percent, then it looks like about 62.5 percent of the early-vote comprises black voters, 32.5 percent white and 5 percent "other."

Some people, by the way, have asked what happens if the referendum goes down. Assuming that the City Council can somehow undo its surrender vote, it seems plausible that the all-suburban Shelby County Schools will get special school district status. That is, if Germantown, Collierville and Bartlett don't go after the opportunity to go for municipal school district status (see today's story on the Bartlett meeting last night -- taxes would likely at least double for a Bartlett municipal district). But assuming any combination of that happens, it's not implausible that we'd be doing the referendum all over again --  so that what is now Memphis City Schools Board of Education becomes the Shelby County Board of Education.

Putting the early voting turnout into context

It's nearly impossible to find previous elections here that can help gauge whether the turnout we're seeing in early voting reflects the voting public's interest (or lack thereof) or if it's merely a structural issue having to do with lack of time to create campaign infrastructure and drive strong get out the vote campaigns.

Most people are blaming some combination of voter bewilderment and lack of time on turnout not being very high -- it's going to be less than 10 percent in the early voting period unless a tsunami of voters shows up on today's final day of early voting.

There are other factors, of course. An election in March is very, very unusual. There are no specific candidates appealing directly to people to vote for them -- or creating motivation to get out and vote against them. City of Memphis elections in the last few cycles have shown poor turnouts even when they are held in regularly-scheduled October slot -- just 23.7 percent turnout for the October 2003 city elections in which dozens of candidates were on the ballot and 23.4 percent for the 2009 special mayoral election. That mayoral election featured a sophisticated media campaign from proven vote-getter A C Wharton and another seven serious candidates with proven ability to turn out votes.

If you look at runoff and special elections in recent years, they almost always draw less than 10 percent turnout. And other municipalities, when elections are not scheduled with general elections, struggle -- Arlington got 10 percent turnout for its 2009 elections and Lakeland 5.4 percent, for example.

Still, for an issue drawing so much news coverage, a turnout of less than 15 percent is far from robust.

Early voting numbers show solid jump

Turnout for Tuesday's schools referendum got a decent bump with the best days yet coming on Tuesday (3,072 votes)and Wednesday (4,195 votes) -- the combined 7,267 votes on those two days makes up 32.4 percent of the 22,413 votes so far cast in early voting.

Headed into today's final day of early voting, 5.3 percent of Memphis's 420,396 registered voters had participated. If today's voting can hit 5,000-plus, which is not unusual for the final day of early voting, the final number for early voting could push close to 28,000. It would take a monster day to get to 30,000.

Cardell Orrin, one of the leaders of the "YES for Unity" campaign and well-respected around town for his number-crunching, points out that special elections recently have seen election days outperform the early-voting period in terms of total votes cast. That contrasts with regular elections, where the breakdown has been closer to 60percent of total turnout coming in early voting vs. about 40 percent on election day. So if we split the difference and go with a 50-50 breakdown, final turnout is looking like it won't get to 60,000 and will be closer to 13 percent than 15 percent.

The top performing neighborhood precincts, in terms of turnout, have been at Glenview Community Center (14.8 percent, 220 votes), Lakeview Elementary School (12.2 percent 297 votes), Havenview Middle School (10.8 percent, 332 votes), Second Baptist Church (10.1 percent, 273 votes) and White Station Middle School (9.8 percent).

The most heavily trafficked early-voting satellite locations have been at Bishop Byrne High School (2,813 votes) in Whitehaven and White Station Church of Christ (2,685) in East Memphis. No other site comes close -- Berclair Church of Christ is third at 1,990.

Halbert email: She and voters 'beyond confused'

The email comes from Wanda Halbert, the Education Chair for the Memphis City Council, and it reveals, well, read it for yourself. Halbert claims that rampant confusion still exists over what, exactly, Memphians are voting for in Tuesday's schools referendum, and her email to City Council attorney Allan Wade and Memphis City Schools attorney Dorsey Hopson indicates that Halbert is confused herself.

Halbert, a former chairman of MCS's board, also distributed the email to MCS board members. Her main issue seems to be with the actual ballot question, which reads, "Shall the management and control of the Memphis City School System be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education?" That language was approved in January. Halbert writes in the email:

I am now hearing the decision on March 8th is to "turn over the administration of MCS to SCS."  What exactly does that mean? Will MCS be abandoning its charter, making itself a thing of the past? If the vote passes, does SCS' administration take over MCS immediately?
The answer proponents give most often is that nothing will change immediately -- MCS will continue to operate, teachers teaching, principals managing and students attending their schools until the end of the school year. The state will contend that the legislation passed by Mark Norris setting up a planning commission would be triggered, with full implementation delayed until summer of 2013. The City Council and County Commission will contend that a) the County Commission is moving to set up an expanded unified countywide school board with 18 Memphis representatives and seven suburban and b) the Norris legislation will eventually be struck down by a court.

Halbert asked many more questions recently to try and clear up confusion in the community, and one of the charter proponents, County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, answered all 17 of them. For that document, click here.

For the entirety of Halbert's email sent this morning, click the link below to the right.

NPR sends national education reporter to Memphis

Speaking of great national education journalists, National Public Radio's Claudio Sanchez is in town reporting on our schools showdown. Definitely check out his page at NPR for some of the best reporting you'll get anywhere on education issues in the United States. We'll look forward to what Sanchez makes of the situation here.
The public schools here may be in turmoil right now because of the move by Memphis City Schools to force consolidation with the currently all-suburban Shelby County Schools, but it's not the only place in the South vexed by big disagreements over the best way to structure their public school system.

The New York Times fine education reporter, Michael Winerip, last week explained the situation in Raleigh, N.C., where the Wake County schools are experiencing a schools showdown of their own. Go read the whole thing and determine for yourself how relevant the situation there is to what is happening here -- or might happen here if the March 8 referendum is approved and consolidation moves forward.

The story begins with a statement that might seem shocking to those opposing consolidation of Memphis and suburban schools here out of a belief that it would create a too-large, too-cumbersome, unmanageable district.

For decades, the Wake County Public School System -- the nation's 18th largest -- has been known as a strong academic district committed to integration.
That's right -- the Wake County district now has 143,000 students, or close to what a consolidated Shelby County district would be. Enrollment was just 101,000 as recently as 2001, but has "exploded," according to Winerip, in part because of the success generated by a student assignment policy guided by the goal of socio-economic balance at all schools.

The idea was that every school in the county (163 at present) would have a mix of children from poor to rich. The target for schools was a 60-40 mix -- 60 percent of students who did not require subsidized lunches and 40 percent who did.
In 2009, a new, more conservative school board took control and changed policy to a neighborhood-school approach, in part because keeping a socio-economic balance created frustrations from parents unhappy about their children having to change schools every few years. A battle ensued, but two weeks ago a new plan was created and unveiled by, of all things, the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

In September the chamber hired Michael Alves, a nationally known consultant who has been developing school integration plans since 1981. SAS Institute, a global software producer owned by James Goodnight, the richest man in North Carolina, with a reported worth of $6.9 billion, provided two doctorate-level programmers free to do data analysis for the plan.
The result is a plan that focuses on "integration by achievement," such that "no school would have an overwhelming number of failing students. Instead a school might have a 70-30 mix -- 70 percent of students who have scored proficient on state tests and 30 percent who are below grade level."

Now, the dynamic of Memphis's city and suburban schools are far different from those in Raleigh, so it's hard to gauge how applicable the lessons in Wake are for Memphis. But reading about it helps put the schools tumult here into context. The head of the Greater Raleigh Chamber says businesses are hopeful the new plan will help the economy.

He says integration by achievement will be good for business because no matter where a family lives in the county, their children can attend a high achieving school. "Companies can come into this market and not have to pay extra for employees to send their children to private schools," he said.  
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As the process for merging Shelby County's schools accelerates into action, we'll provide bonus coverage here at, with a particular focus on the 21-member transition team and the 23-member unified school board. Comment early and often. If you have any tips or suggestions you wish to share, contact Zack McMillin at or 529-2564.

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