November 05, 2011

NY Times: Merger of Memphis and County School Districts Revives Race and Class Challenges

When thousands of white students abandoned the Memphis schools 38 years ago rather than attend classes with blacks under a desegregation plan fueled by busing, Joseph A. Clayton went with them. He quit his job as a public school principal to head an all-white private school and later won election to the board of the mostly white suburban district next door.

Now, as the overwhelmingly black Memphis school district is being dissolved into the majority-white Shelby County schools, Mr. Clayton is on the new combined 23-member school board overseeing the marriage. And he warns that the pattern of white flight could repeat itself, with the suburban towns trying to secede and start their own districts.

“There’s the same element of fear,” said Mr. Clayton, 79. “In the 1970s, it was a physical, personal fear. Today the fear is about the academic decline of the Shelby schools.”

“As far as racial trust goes,” Mr. Clayton, who is white, added, “I don’t think we’ve improved much since the 1970s.”

Read the full article here.

August 01, 2011

A Memphis Dilemma

A Memphis Dilemma: A Half-Century of Education in Memphis and Shelby County from Desegregation to Consolidation

Abstract: On May 17, 1954, the day that the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education, essentially four separate school systems existed within the borders of Shelby County, Tennessee. Memphis City Schools (MCS) served students within the city limits, and Shelby County Schools (SCS) served the balance of students in the county; within each system were white schools and black schools. The next several decades saw the two districts grapple with implementation of the Supreme Court mandate to remove the vestiges of segregation from public education.

By 2010, both districts had achieved unitary status, freeing them from court supervision and adherence to judicially approved desegregation plans. However, there remained a sense in the community that public education remained very much separate - and that there was a continued racial component to that separation. Indeed, the demographics of the two districts supported this perception. Of the 100,000 students in MCS, nearly 90% were African American. Meanwhile, the majority of the county’s white students were learning in SCS. Coupling these demographic differences with the fact that the county schools performed better educationally, on average, by state accountability standards and the claims of separate, unequal schooling no different than what was confronted in Brown seemed even more legitimate.

This article appeared in the University of Memphis Law Review.  The full article is available here.

July 06, 2011

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure:

Abstract: Written as an invited response to Prof. Richard Sander’s “Class in American Legal Education,” this piece argues that the debate about affirmative action in higher education has overemphasized the admissions process without focusing a sufficient amount of energy on addressing longer-term strategies that would make controversial admissions interventions unnecessary.

This essay appeared in the Denver Law Review.  The full article is available here.  Links to the other articles in the volume are available here.

May 24, 2011

C-SPAN: Memphis School Desegregation at 50

Memphis School Desegregation at 50 University of Memphis Law school professor Daniel Kiel has spent years collecting stories of the original desegregation of the Memphis City Schools in October 1961. His work takes a look at the history of desegregation and its legacy fifty years later. He presented video clips from oral histories of people who were part of the first desegregated class, when two separate communities combined as one. He talked about the lessons that apply as the community moves toward unifying the city schools of Memphis with the Shelby County school systems. Professor Kiel talked with Ms. Peiser and offered a long-view look at public education in Memphis and Shelby County.

“Memphis School Desegregation at 50” was a program of the Downtown Neighborhood Association’s conversation series. It was held at the University of Memphis law school.

Video available here...

March 08, 2011

NY Times: Memphis Votes for County to Run Schools

Memphis residents voted Tuesday to transfer the administration of the city’s schools to the county, supporting earlier moves by city officials and effectively putting an end to the city school system.

The referendum is the first time that voters have weighed in on the fate of the schools, a racially and politically charged issue that has fueled months of debate and political brinkmanship and pitted the city against its suburbs and many state lawmakers.

Voters decided roughly two-to-one that the 103,000 students in the city’s schools should join the 47,000 suburban students in one countywide system. State law limited the vote to city residents.
Still, the issue remains in uncertain legal territory, subject to numerous lawsuits. In the short term, it is even unclear just who will be in charge of city schools.

“We are on a path to a merged school system,” said Daniel Kiel, a law professor at the University of Memphis who specializes in education law. “How we get there, we don’t know.”

For years, the Memphis and suburban Shelby County school systems operated semiautonomously but were paid for collectively. Taxes were drawn from everyone in the county and divided between the two systems based on attendance. City schools were additionally financed by revenues from a city-only tax.

But residents of the more affluent suburbs have harbored a goal of forming a so-called special district, which would permanently freeze the boundaries of the suburban-controlled school district, preventing any merger or urban encroachment.

City residents were deeply concerned about the financial implications of such a move. If Memphis, a poor city, were forced to pay for its schools without countywide support, taxes in the city would skyrocket and schools could face financial difficulties.

Advocates of a suburban district say they would have continued to pay taxes toward all schools even with a special district, but that assurance has been received by city residents with skepticism.
Such special districts, which proliferated in the years after school desegregation, were declared illegal in 1982. But Republican domination in the state elections in November, fueled in part by Republican strongholds in the suburban areas, made it much more likely that special districts would be allowed again.

So in December, the city school board took the drastic step of voting to dissolve itself and leave its schools in the county’s hands. The City Council later voted to dissolve the city school board. Tuesday’s referendum was seen by many as the final step.

But suburban residents were outraged, seeing the maneuver as a hostile takeover by a much larger, poorer and more complicated school district. Never in the state’s history, they pointed out, has a larger district — in this case, more than twice as large — dissolved into a smaller one.

 Last month, Republican state lawmakers passed a law mandating a two-and-a-half-year transition period for the merger. The law would also lift the prohibition on special districts in Shelby County at the end of that period. Smaller towns in the suburbs have already begun planning to create autonomous school districts of their own.

As far as the state is concerned, that law is now governing the transition. But the county commission has its own plan, and there are other debates over exactly who sits on a transition committee. And lawsuits are coming almost by the week, putting the whole process into what Professor Kiel calls “a legal black hole.”

NY Times version available here.