June 20, 2008

Message to City School Students: Buzz Off

Dear Students of the Memphis City Schools:

I hope you have not been watching too much of the news these days. Your collective future is being used as a pawn in a shortsighted game of "pass the buck," with new developments by the day. I am writing this letter to you because you and your interests have been wholly absent from this conversation. It is imperative that we, the adults of Memphis, remember that what is happening right now is happening to you.

As the mayor and City Council and school board and state argue over who is responsible for your education, the fact remains: We are all responsible. We, the parents. We, the teachers. We, the principals and administrators. And we, the elected officials. We are all responsible because it is not just your future that is at stake, but ours as well. Unfortunately, many of us refuse to acknowledge this.

Take our City Council's decision earlier this month to cut funding to your schools. Now, we could have had an adult discussion about how best to address mismanagement and inefficiency in the district while also making absolutely certain that your education would not be affected. But we never had that discussion. Instead, the City Council made the unilateral decision to drastically reduce your funding.

The damage done by the City Council's action is not limited to the short-term budgetary mess that has been created or the lawsuit the school board filed this week in an attempt to rescind the budget cuts -- though both of those will be huge distractions from the district's primary mission of education. The most significant damage comes from the signal the action sends: The Memphis City Schools are not worth supporting. While the technical substance of the council's action may have been fiscal, there can be no mistaking the message that supporting the city schools is not a high priority.

That signal was sent to you, with likely consequences for your engagement in school. It was sent to your parents, who have entrusted your future to public education and now know precisely where public education sits on the city leadership's priority list. And it was sent to the larger community, upon whom you depend for support, and ultimately, funding.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time you have been pawns while the adults argue. In the 1970s, the City Council threatened to withhold funds to the district and actually sued the Board of Education for complying with a federal order to institute busing. In that instance, as here, the students' future was second to political gain as adults chose shortsighted confrontation over collaborative discussion about students' best interests. After all, it is the best interests of students such as you that ought to be foremost in our minds when deciding these issues.

The most significant lasting impact from that era in civic history was the erosion of public support for the Memphis City Schools, a district that educates the vast majority of the Mid-South's future work force. That erosion can be directly linked to the recent City Council cuts. There is apparently no more political consequence for condemning the city schools.

That does not mean that your future does not matter. Indeed, we all have a stake in your future whether we know you or not. If you are not prepared to work in a 21st century economy, then our community will be stuck economically, or will move backwards. All of the problems that plague us today -- crime, poverty, stagnant development -- become more intractable with every single dip in public support for the Memphis City Schools, whether individual (a Memphian who disparages the schools with glee) or institutional (a City Council that cuts funding because there is no legal obligation to support the schools financially).

Missing during the community confrontations over busing were honest and credible adults with the courage to push students' interests to the fore of the conversation, regardless of the political or social consequences. Those adults remain few and far between today.

To protect your future and ours, those of us who are discouraged when your education is deemed unworthy of our support (and dollars) should do our part. We must hold leaders who contribute to the erosion of public support for your schools accountable by filling their in-boxes and mailboxes with letters of dissatisfaction, and when necessary, using our power at ballot boxes. We must confront our friends who seem to take pride in disparaging the city schools with the fact that our future as a city rests on your shoulders. We must push those friends and ourselves to contribute to solutions rather than to the problem. If we are parents, we must push you to your potential and hold both you and your teachers accountable for taking education seriously.

There already was much to be done to provide you the tools you need to make our city maximize its capabilities. Now, there is the added burden of undoing the damage done over the last several months. But if we are to move forward as a community, we'd better be up to the task.

[NOTE: Originally published in Commercial Appeal, June 20, 2008. I had nothing to do with the title and might have chosen something a bit less sensational, like "Interests of Students Lost Amidst Funding Debate" - oh well!]