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Weighing Rights of Parents in Adjacent School Districts

When parents decide where they want to live, one of the top considerations is the reputation of neighborhood schools. In fact, many parents willingly pay a premium for that reason alone. But their address no longer guarantees that their children will get the quality education they assumed, as the heated debate in Memphis, Tenn. and surrounding Shelby County illustrates.

In November, the failing inner-city Memphis City Schools surrendered its charter after city voters approved the move in a referendum to merge the school district with the smaller, affluent Shelby County Schools. Voters in Shelby County, however, did not have a vote. As a result, the county board of education sued to block the merger. On Aug. 8, a federal district judge ruled that the merger was constitutional, paving the way for the creation of a school system of 150,000 students to begin in the 2013-14 school year.

Involved are two issues, which the federal district court attempted to address. First, the suburbs contribute about 49 percent of the county's residential property tax base. This helps fund both districts. The court ruling requires the city council to meet its funding obligations to the Memphis City schools during the transition. Second, the suburban schools offer a far better education. It's concern over the latter that weighs most heavily on the minds of parents in the suburbs. They're afraid that the quality of schools their children attend will be impacted by the merger.

They're not altogether wrong. In 2008, 87 percent of Memphis residents were low-income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The connection between poverty and academic achievement is well documented. That's probably why the court ordered input from all parties on establishing new district lines and on constituting a school board that is fair to all students.

Although the merger seems settled for now, it's likely to be repeated elsewhere as more and more school districts seek to consolidate in order to take advantage of the savings involved. At last count, there were 15,000 school districts, compared with about 120,000 school districts in the 1950s. The contraction will almost certainly accelerate because of threats to the budgets of local school districts resulting from the protracted recession. Last year, the National Association of State Budget Officers reported that K-12 budgets were slashed $1.8 billion nationwide. Cuts to K-12 for the new fiscal year are expected to total $2.5 billion.

Most parents believe in educational equity. But putting their belief to the test is another story. It reminds me of other causes that eventually come down to NIMBY (not in my backyard). However the brouhaha in Tennessee and elsewhere ultimately plays out, there will be no clear-cut winners. Both sides make a compelling case. Which one will prevail is a task the courts will decide.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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