Memphis Residents Vote To Disband Schools
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
Coming up, the rags-to-riches story of the homeless boy from Memphis who became an NFL star has captivated millions in the movie "The Blind Side." But now, Michael Oher is speaking for himself. We'll hear more of his personal story in a moment.
But, first, another story out of Memphis that could represent a significant new chapter in the ongoing struggle for educational opportunity for students of all races and backgrounds. Yesterday, residents of Memphis voted on a referendum that would disband the Memphis City School District and transfer the administration of those schools to Shelby County's Board of Education, a smaller, but more affluent district. There was a small turnout, but those who did vote overwhelmingly supported the move. Sixty-seven percent of voters said yes, compared to 33 percent who said no.
We wanted to learn more about the vote and the results, so we've called on Zack McMillin. He's been reporting on the issue for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.
Zack, thanks so much for joining us.
Mr. ZACK MCMILLIN (Reporter, The Commercial Appeal): Thanks. Glad to be here.
MARTIN: So, how did the idea of merging the districts come about?
Mr. MCMILLIN: In this case, it's been going on for a long time, and it's important to know that in Tennessee, counties are mandated to provide education for the population of kids, and not cities. Although Memphis has a special school district, it went back. So what happened yesterday was voters said yes, we want one county school system. That's what Memphis voters said.
MARTIN: So does that mean that Shelby County, then, is required to run the school system in Memphis?
Mr. MCMILLIN: Yes. AC Wharton, the Memphis mayor here - who was the county mayor for seven previous years - has compared it to taking your child to a babysitter, that he says that the city of Memphis served as a babysitter for years and years, and that they have said, listen, we're getting out of the school business now. You are the parents. Here are your kids. Take care of them. We will do everything we can to continue to help with the education of those kids, but ultimately, the Constitution says the county is required.
MARTIN: Those are two very different systems. Memphis' is much larger. Memphis, as I understand it, about 100,000 students, and 85 percent of them are African-American, and 87 percent of them are considered economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free or reduced lunches. Shelby County is about half that size, about 47,000 students so far, and it's actually a little bit more diverse. So it's about half are white and over a third are African-American. And the rate of the students who receive reduced or free lunches are about, you know, 37 percent.
So is the logic here that this smaller school system is better able to run the larger school system, or that the resources will be - what? Spread around more evenly around the districts? What's the logic there?
Mr. MCMILLIN: Well, yeah, I mean, that's one of the arguments. The main argument from the proponents of the surrender - well, there were two main arguments. One was that if Memphis does not do this, taxes in Memphis will soar, the middle class flight from the city will accelerate, and that will ultimately really imperil funding for city students.
And then the second was let's unify. Why do we have two separate school systems? The city council chairman here, Myron Lowery, has been saying over and over: We should not have separate, but equal. It's wrong. We need to spread educational opportunity. Those are the two primary, you know, arguments for it. And as to what happens now, there's a planning commission that is supposed to be put into place. There's kind of two different tracks.
The state says that's what's going to happen. The Republican state legislator passed a law that said this is how we want things to go. Now, the city and the county commission which is dominated by city members, they say, no. We're going to appoint a new unified Shelby County school board that's going to be 70 percent Memphians, and they will guide the transition. So, in some ways, the real battles have only just begun.
MARTIN: Now, I think a lot of people would be interested to know what the reaction has been on the Shelby County side. We have a short clip from David Pickler, who's the chairman of the Shelby County Board of Education, from a report that aired on NPR's MORNING EDITION earlier this week. Here it is.
Mr. DAVID PICKLER (Chairman, Shelby County Board of Education): It's been about money. It's been about power. It's not been about the kids. And that, to me, is the greatest tragedy of all.
MARTIN: So what's their perspective?
Mr. MCMILLIN: Well, I think the folks in the suburbs, in the Shelby County school system felt like, hey, we have a good system. We don't want it to change and we want to protect that. Now they also say - and they back it up with studies - that bigger is not necessarily better, that if you're taking what is now 103,000 students in the city and 47,000 students in the county to make a 150,000 student district, that they say that's going to be a disaster.
So in terms of the suburbs, they feel like this is a forced, they call it a hostile takeover by Memphis of their school system that they felt like was doing just fine.
Now Memphians will say if you compare demographics, if you take a school with the similar numbers of economically disadvantaged students in the county and compare it to a city school that's similar, they have similar results. So let's unify; let's put best practices from both systems and let's come up with a new better approach.
MARTIN: So what's the next step here? Politically, this seems like it's the end of the story but you're saying actually it's not, and I wonder whether people are pursuing ways to block this in the courts.
Mr. MCMILLIN: Yeah. This is going to the - I mean, after this referendum we expect lawsuits to really start flying. I have said can we just get the Tennessee Supreme Court together and spend about a month looking at how best to structure the schools in Shelby County? Because ultimately, the Tennessee State Supreme Court judges are going to decide this. If not, I mean it could go to the federal courts too and, I mean you could see this rise - I guess rise to the Supreme Court of the United States ultimately.
MARTIN: Zack McMillin covers politics and public affairs for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, and he was kind enough to join us from Memphis.
Zack, thanks so much for joining us.
Mr. MCMILLIN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.