Recently in Public policy debate Category

Jane Roberts has the story of the 23-member unified Shelby County Board of Education overwhelming support Tuesday of recommendations by both superintendents to deny 17 charter school applications based on financial hardship.

Citing a new state law, Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash and his staff laid out the "unsustainable" short-term and long-term financial burdens that would be created if the board approved the 12 charter schools that staff said provided strong enough amended applications (two more had inferior amended applications). Shelby County Schools Supt. John Aitken applied the same analysis to the two charter schools that submitted strong enough amended applications (one other was not strong enough).

Of the 14 rejected, nine were from the W.E.B. Du Bois Consortium led by Willie Herenton, the longtime former Memphis mayor and former MCS superintendent. He plans to appeal.

Board members were swayed by a presentation that showed the potentially crippling effects on MCS in particular if 14 new charters were allowed to operate next school year. The superintendents told the board that the charter application deadline is such that it had to act before close of business today or the charters with strong enough applications would have automatically been approved.

A great deal of the deliberations were spent by some MCS board representatives in particular chastising Cash's staff for not providing more or better numbers, despite a detailed presentation from chief financial officer Pam Anstey. Sara Lewis and Stephanie Gatewood said they needed color printouts with more visual presentation of numbers. When Tomeka Hart complained about not having more data by hitting Anstey with a fusillade of detailed requests, the CFO had responses ready within five minutes.

The short-term numbers would be grim enough, both superintendents said. Cash said approving 12 more charter schools would create a cost to MCS of an additional $26 million, meaning 400 positions would have to be eliminated. Aitken said costs for SCS would climb from $280,000 now to about $3.5 million -- the equivalent of roughly 50 positions.

Anstey pointed out that the long-term implications were even more stark -- approving charter schools at the rate of about 15 new ones per year combined with growth of existing charter schools would mean costs of $184,510,410 by 2016-17.

Herenton said he will appeal to the state. MCS and SCS are hoping the state will accept their claims of financial hardship, and board vice-chairman Jeffrey Warren suggested that the uncertainty about funding related to MCS merging with the county by 2013 could be another argument.

One reason for the vast increase in the charter school applications -- new state laws passed that severely loosened the restrictions on which students could be eligible to attend charter schools (essentially, every student is now eligible). MCS Dep. Supt. Irving Hamer had this to say: "This is an unfunded mandate that requires us to use base dollars and compromises the base infrastructure, compromises the base capacity to use resources for the operation of the main school system."

The two board members most sympathetic to charter schools were MCS representative Kenneth Whalum Jr. and new unified member Vanecia Kimbrow. Whalum said the arguments were another example of adults putting their own interests and that of the district's above students, and Kimbrow, who has been involved with charter schools, testified to the power of charter schools to give hope to children and their parents.

However, staff said that those existing charters Kimbrow extolled also would feel adverse consequences just like traditional schools if the district as a whole began cutting deeper into "the marrow" of infrastructure, as Cash put it.

The board now has five days to present evidence to the state of the financial hardship. Cash said his staff will be working through the Thanksgiving holiday and over the weekend getting it ready.
In addition to referencing the 1961 integration of Memphis City Schools, two speakers at Monday's oath of office ceremonies for new unified school board members also brought attention to the fact that the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuits were first filed in 1951, 60 years ago. One of them was the longtime Shelby County Schools board chairman, David Pickler, and the other was U.S. Appeals Court Judge Bernice Donald.

It was Donald who as a district court judge ruled in 2007 against the suburban system's plea to be released from a court-supervised desegregation order. Donald had expressed concern that many of the suburban schools had fewer than 10 percent black students and others had between 56 and 90 percent -- and that Southwind High would be comprised of nearly 90 percent black students when it opened. She ordered busing to achieve racial balances in schools within 15 percent of the districtwide average (at the time, 58 percent white and 31 percent black; now, closer to 52 percent white and 38 percent black) and also cited need for progress in faculty assignment and extracurricular activities.

However, the very same court of appeals on which Donald now serves overruled, using at times stinging language in rebuking her decision and therefore providing SCS the "unitary status" it had long sought. Essentially, the appeals court agreed with SCS and the original plaintiffs that it no longer needed a judge's permission to make changes to zoning and staffing that might affect racial balances at the district's schools. "I have dreamed of this moment," Pickler said at the time. According to our story:
The Court of Appeals ruled that the district wasn't at fault for the uneven racial makeup of schools, citing annexations by the city of Memphis, people's choices in where to live and school construction approved by the court. "It is undisputed that political and social decisions beyond the defendant Board's control have affected and continue to impact the racial ratio of the Shelby County students," the ruling says.
That appeals court ruling came in the week marking the 54th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which Donald and Pickler both cited on Monday. Donald, after a receiving a standing ovation from the packed MCS auditorium, said:
"Education is the foundation upon which all great communities, all great nations, are ultimately built. If we are ever going to have communities of equity and opportunity it is incumbent upon all of us to insure that every child has a solid and wonderful education."

In closing the ceremony, Pickler thanked Donald for bringing up Brown. Here is what he said:

You may also recall that one of the significant and influential Supreme Court justices was Felix Frankfurter, and one of his greatest accomplishments was bringing together a unanimous verdict, a unanimous decision in that Brown case because he felt it so important to send that message. Felix Frankfurter has a saying. He said, "The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny." As those Supreme Court justices, all nine of them came together, we 23 have an opportunity to come together for the benefit of our community, to be the most pervasive influence on the future of our community.
In researching to verify Pickler's statement on Frankfurter, another quote attributed to Frankfurter also arose. It was at his insistence that the phrase "all deliberate speed" replace "forthwith" in the Brown decision, and it was upon that basis, argue many legal scholars, that school systems, especially in the South, were able to delay fully integrating schools for nearly two decades. The fact that it was more than six years after Brown that Memphis took the so-called "bold" putting the burden of integration on the shoulders of 13 young children integrate speaks to the extent of noncompliance with Brown.

For more on Memphis and desegregation, schools merger transition team member Daniel Kiel's legal article "Exploded Dream" is a good resource. This Library of Congress website is a great resource on Frankfurter and his colleagues and the Brown decision. It has the image of the original draft decree from Frankfurter and explains:
Frankfurter inserted "with all deliberate speed" in place of "forthwith," which Thurgood Marshall had suggested to achieve an accelerated desegregation timetable. Frankfurter wanted to anchor the decree in an established doctrine, and his endorsement of it sought to advance a consensus held by the entire court. The justices thought that the decree should provide for flexible enforcement, appeal to established principles, and suggest some basic ground rules for judges of the lower courts. When it became clear that opponents of desegregation were using the doctrine to delay and avoid compliance with Brown, the Court began to express reservations about the phrase.

Hearing aids for children. Oh my!


NASHVILLE - The National Federation of Independent Business, which mostly represents smaller businesses, is one of the more conservative business groups and although officially non-partisan, provides key support for Republicans. But it may have overreached today with an email to lawmakers opposing a bipartisan bill requiring health insurance policies to cover hearing aids for children who need them.

The bill (HB761) ended up passing 82-12 after its supporters used words like  "threatening" and "offensive" to describe the email they received from NFIB-Tennessee. Members said it urged a "no" vote because NFIB sees it as a health-care mandate on business. "NFIB members strongly oppose all healthcare mandates because their collective impact has forced thousands of Tennessee small businesses, their employees and families to drop comprehensive coverage that protects them while facing catastrophic illnesses," according to the group's website.

But what really "disturbed" members - as Rep. Kent Williams, I-Elizabethton, put it -- was the email's warning that NFIB might include their votes on the bill among a list of "key votes" of the 2011-12 legislative term to be distributed to the group's members at election time next year.

Sponsors of the bill said the new coverage is limited, paying for an initial hearing aid and then new ones once every three years up to age 18 but only if an audiologist or doctor certifies a child's hearing has significantly worsened. They said the benefit will add, at most, 2 cents to health insurance premiums. It goes into affect with policies issue or renewed after next Jan. 1.

The 26-minute floor debate opened a rare fissure among the newly dominant Republicans, with some of the House's most conservative members ending up voting against the bill -- while all Democrats and most of the other moderate and conservative Republicans voting in favor. Five of the 12 "no" votes are freshmen Republicans swept into office in last year's tea party-backed GOP tidal wave.

Three West Tennessee members voted against the bill: Reps. Mark White, R-Memphis, Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, and freshman Andy Holt, R-Dresden.  Itl now goes to the Senate, where Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said he expects passage.

House Republican Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga (and a Shelby County native), told reporters after the floor session that the unrest revolves around the legislature's traditional opposition to "mandates." "There are dozens of bills each year where different groups want to come in and mandate things to go on to the insurance policies and we generally vote those mandates down because they are mandates that make additional costs for individuals and businesses. But about once every year or two we pick one out that we think is especially deserving, and all the business people I know feel like we ought to help little children be able to hear and have hearing aids. I think it's a very stringent process before we let a mandate come through like that but I think in this case we overwhelmingly  wanted that one to come through and that was reflected today. Certainly the NFIB has their opinion, as does dozens and hundreds of other special interest groups around here. Sometimes we go along with them and sometimes we don't. I think we're responding to our constituents instead of the special interests," McCormick said.

On the House floor, Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, the bill sponsor, said "I don't consider this a mandate. I consider this a humane right-thing-to-do piece of legislation for children. They said they're going to grade me on this legislation. I've got 62,000 people back home who grade me - mommas and daddies and children. I guarantee you that if I went to every one of my  businesses back in Sevier County and said here's what we're doing and the impact it will have on children, they would all sign off on this piece of legislation. I guarantee you they would."

Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, a State Farm insurance agent who backed the bill, said, "We put caps on this so it wouldn't become an outrageous benefit. This small amount of money will be able to be consumed in the premiums."

Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said he received a letter from the parents of a six-year-old boy in his district who said that all he wanted for Christmas was a new pair of hearing aids. Despite that, Lundberg said, it's a mandate and he's opposed to it. "Where is the line that we draw on what's a good mandate and what's not?"

One of the House's most conservative members, Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he's "profoundly anti-mandate...but occasionally something comes along that's the right thing to do." He said the cost savings from children being able to hear and learn would greatly exceed the costs of hearing aids. "Considering the email I that got which was offensive to me as well - as I'm sure it was offensive to my colleagues on the other side _ I think the most fitting thing we could do here today is vote this out of here 99 to zero," Shipley said.

Williams said the NFIB's message that it may use the vote as a "score" on on lawmakers disturbed him. "I really don't care what kind of score that any of these special interest groups give me.... I'm appalled that any special interest or lobbyist will try to tell us how to vote on any issue. I'm more interest in the grade I get from my constituents and the people of Tennessee and the families that have these children that can't hear."

Freshman Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, voted for the bill and called on his colleagues to have courage to do so as well. "To my colleagues in this august body, I want to draw a parallel for you. A number of you are fellow veterans. You know what it's like to be shot at. And as one of the poets of our time said, without fear, courage would be meaningless. I'm calling on you to have courage and vote for this bill. What it boils down to is, we are here to benefit the taxpayers of the state of Tennessee that sent us here. It costs less in the long run to give a child hearing aids so that they can learn how to be a productive citizen than it does to pay for the results of not allowing that to happen. Let me close again with a call for courage, in this case not the courage to stand in front of somebody shooting at you or land a burning airplane or any of those things we think of as demonstrating courage - but moral courage. I think this is the morally right thing to do and I support the bill fully."

Democratic Rep. Eddie Bass of Pulaski said lawmakers shouldn't fear special interest. groups. He thanked Montgomery for the legislation "as a small business owner" himself. "But I am going to say to the new people in here: I got this same threatening email from NFIB, and for anybody who's concerned about that, I got the same threatening letter last year -- both in a letter and verbally. I still voted my conscience and did what was right. I ran without their support because of it and I'm living proof that if you vote what's right, you don't need them."

See the news story here.

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."


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.
Our Nashville bureau chief, Richard Locker, sends this along, quoting the new Speaker of the House boasting about reducing Memphis's influence on state education policy. It does seem that Memphis-bashing never loses its power as an easy way to score political points for politicians outside of the Memphis area.

By Richard Locker
NASHVILLE - It's no secret that the Republican tidal wave that swept through the Tennessee statehouse in November sparked the current war over consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County Schools. It's up for debate which side -- city or county school officials -- first put fire to the cannon fuse but both MCS Board member Martavious Jones and SCS Board chairman David Pickler both immediately proclaimed that the new 64-34 GOP majority in the House of Representatives washed away the longstanding roadblock to the county school system's dreams of conversion to a special school district.

That roadblock was the House Education Committee, long dominated by Democrats - and particularly Memphis Democrats -- who favored MCS over the suburban district. SCS's annual attempt to lift the state's ban on the creation of new special school districts, enacted in 1982, always crashed against the Democratic firewall in either the K-12 subcommittee or the full Education Committee.

New State House Speaker Beth Harwell turned the Education Committee from what had been a 12-12 split between Democrats and Republicans during the last two years into a 12-6 GOP majority. She also appointed only two members from the city of Memphis -- Democratic Reps. John DeBerry and Lois DeBerry -- where there were five Memphis Democrats on it during the last two years.

Harwell boasted of that move when she spoke last weekend to Sumner County Republicans, according to, a news website covering state government. quoted Harwell as telling the GOP gathering, "We have, I think, the best education committee that has ever existed in the General Assembly. I broke up the Memphis control over it. I put some of our best and brightest on (the House committee). It is made up with some of our financial gurus on both the Democrat and Republican sides. We have elevated that committee significantly." reported that Harwell "walked a tightrope" on the issue of whether to repeal the 1970s statute that gave local teachers' associations collective bargaining rights with local school boards.'s Mike Morrow wrote that she said she hasn't decided whether to support the bill sponsored by her House GOP colleague, Rep. Debra Maggart of Hendersonville.

The bill to repeal the Professional Negotiations Act is one of several Republicans have introduced far to roll back measures won by the Tennessee Education Association during the years of Democratic rule, including bills to weaken tenure and remove TEA's statutory ability to nominate members to various boards and commissions.

Wednesday forum oriented toward students


See below for the release from the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals about a forum Wednesday evening at the Church Health Center in Midtown that is being described as more student-oriented.

Memphis Urban League Young Professionals and MPACT Memphis Address School Consolidation


MEMPHIS, Tenn. - The Memphis Urban League Young Professionals (MULYP) and MPACT Memphis will host an Education Matters Fact Forum on Wednesday, February 9, 2011, at the Church Health Center from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.  While there have been many opportunities to educate voters on the upcoming referendum to consolidate Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, few have attempted to address how this will impact the students.

"Our goal is to fill the audience with as many students as possible because the outcome of this referendum will affect them," said Christina Watkins, Youth Mentoring and Development Chair for MULYP.

This is, undoubtedly, one of the most important decisions to affect education in our community; therefore, MULYP and MPACT want voters to gain as much information as possible. The forum, moderated by Lauren Johnson of Fox 13 News, will consist of panelists representing both sides of the issue. If you are a parent, teacher, student or concerned citizen, MULYP and MPACT urge you to attend this forum.

Please submit any questions regarding how the referendum will impact students to Toya Cobb, MULYP Civic Engagement and Advocacy Chair, at

 WHO: Memphis Urban League Young Professionals and MPACT Memphis

 WHAT: Education Matters Fact Forum

 WHEN: February 9, 2011, 6 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.

 WHERE:  Church Health Center, 1115 Union Avenue, 38104

For more information, contact:

Jamila Watson

Public Relations Chair

Memphis Urban League Young Professionals


Phone:  901.340.2781

Tuesday night forum in east East Memphis

While many of the school forums heretofore have been held either closer to the middle of the city or further out in the suburbs, Tuesday night's event at the Beth Sholom Synagogue gives those in what I like to call east East Memphis a chance to hear information on the decision facing Memphis voters in the March 8 referendum.

"Exploring the Options: A Panel on Memphis/Shelby County School Unification," will feature a presentation from University of Memphis law professor Daniel Kiel and a discussion featuring UofM law professors Kate Schaffzin and Steve Mulroy, who also serves as a Shelby County Commissioner and is strong in favor of what the "yes" side calls schools unification. It begins at 7 p.m.

The synagogue is right near the Germantown border, which could draw citizens who use different language to describe the effort by Memphians to transfer administrative control from the special school district known as Memphis City Schools to Shelby County. Beth Sholom is at 6675 Humphreys Blvd, which happens to be right across from Opera Memphis - which just became the new voting site for some of the voters in the affluent and large 80-02 precinct (Kirby Woods Baptist Church has long been the home voting site for all voters in that precinct).

To get an idea of Kiel's grasp of the issue and the history of school issues in Memphis and Shelby County, check out these two WKNO radio pieces that rely almost entirely on Kiel's easy-to-understand explanations. Eleanor Boudreau of WKNO has been providing radio (and web) listeners some informative pieces on schools, and of course WKNO-TV Channel 10 is airing live this evening's session of the state Senate, where a floor vote on the school-consolidation bill is scheduled. It is set to begin at 5 p.m.

Consider this a disclaimer for anyone who may have noticed that 'Zack McMillin' has joined two partisan Facebook groups. One is "Germantown Municipal Schools" and the other is "Friends United for School Equality (FUSE)." The Facebook labels sometimes make it hard for journalists - joining someone's network means you are their 'Friend' or have joined their 'Group' or 'Like' them - but it is vital we remain privy to the sometimes compelling conversations happening on social media.

In some respects, the two groups could not be more different.

The Germantown residents - more than 1,000 have signed a petition -- want no part of any massive school district, and many of them believe the current all-suburban Shelby County Schools, at about 45,000 students, is too large as it is.

The FUSE members are primarily parents of children in one of Memphis City Schools optional programs. They've gone from worrying about the threats Shelby County Schools board chair David Pickler has made about ending optional programs to believing the only way forward for Memphis students is to force a merger with Shelby County. They cite a host of reasons, many of them to do with taxing and funding, but at heart they believe, as their name suggests, in unifying all students in one system.

One area where they do seem to agree - the state should be doing more to give individual communities autonomy in deciding what is best for their children.

FUSE appears to be hosting an organizational meeting tonight (go to their page for more information). The city of Germantown is hosting a town hall meeting Monday night at the Germantown Performing Arts Center.

Report: MCS gets unfair rap for its spending

Because schools funding can be so complicated and includes so many disputes, we had to cut a section from Sunday's story on the funding issues that are driving the push for the March 8 referendum to transfer administrative control of Memphis public education to Shelby County. The Center for American Progress, a center-left policy think-tank that promotes proven teacher effectiveness models, earlier this month released a nationwide report that examined return on investment results for every school district in the country.

There is interesting data contained in the report, some of which informs the current schools debate here. You can check out the full report here, complete with cool interactive maps and lots of ways to sort data. Here are links to the MCS profile and to the SCS profile. Following a draft copy of what we considered including in Sunday's funding story:

According to CAP, Shelby County Schools is among the best in the state at keeping expenditures low while performing at the state's highest levels. For MCS, the study's findings contradict the prevailing notion that MCS's spending is out of control. One of CAP's researchers, Ulrich Boser, explained that the report included an "adjusted per-pupil expenditure" that reflected higher urban cost of living and the number of students with special needs (poverty, non-native English speakers, special education).

By that measure, using figures from 2007-08, MCS's per-pupil expenditures are merely 43rd out of 107 districts in the state, at an adjusted $6,094, not far off SCS at $5,849 (22nd of 107). Boser was not well-versed in the current dispute here, but emphasized that CAP's report recommends many best-practices for ways districts can spend their revenues in ways that enhance teaching and learning.

Studies are increasingly showing that lowering class sizes -- which means extra money for extra teachers -- is much less important than putting the right teachers with the right skills in the right classrooms, Boser said. "Class size can be important but just applying broad regulations on class size is like Soviet wheat farming," Boser said. "Highly effective teachers who raise student achievement could have more students in their classes."

Those are the sorts of reforms proponents of the March 8 referendum say are possible with a new countywide system.

But opponents believe funding will only get worse by adding 105,000 city students to a 45,000 suburban system rated as one of the state's strongest in returning good academic achievement on smaller taxpayer expenditures.

"We're one of the highest peroforming school systems in the state and Memphis City chools has unfortunately had severe struggles," Pickler said. "We intend to maintain our independence and autonomy and continue that legacy of excellence."

Jones sees it another way: "This community can get behind all children to advance education. There are great things happening in (city schools) that can be used in (suburban schools) and vice versa."

  • About

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.

  • Zack McMillin on Twitter