August 01, 2013

The Enduring Power of Milliken's Fences

Abstract: Using the experience of one community that has undergone a district line altering transformation as a case study, this article argues that endorsement from the state is an essential element for success in efforts to mitigate the educational inequities caused by district boundaries and then offers specific steps states can take to support such changes even without altering district boundaries. Part I will introduce the ways in which school district lines can serve as barriers to educational opportunities, and Part II will summarize several current educational reform proposals and trends that either have the intent or effect of weakening the power of district lines. Part III examines the rationale for the largely successful suburban resistance to district-weakening proposals, filling out the context in which conversations on these topics take place. The case study of the merger of urban and suburban school districts in Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee will be introduced in Part IV. Utilizing the experience in Memphis and Shelby County, Part V will identify lessons learned from Memphis, focusing on the role of the state in assisting or obstructing elimination of interdistrict disparities, and Part VI will offer practical and politically viable suggestions that states can take to address these issues. Although the legal context was quite different, the practical landscape facing the merger process in Memphis was not unlike what Judge Roth found in Detroit four decades earlier. At issue remained questions about whether education should be considered a common undertaking for the entire metropolitan area it affects, or whether local control should be limited conceptually by existing district lines. If anything, the fences between urban and suburban districts have grown even stronger since the Supreme Court embraced them in Milliken. The lessons from this contemporary attempt to break down school district boundaries demonstrate just how strong those fences have become.

This article appeared in The Urban Lawyer.  The full article is available here.

July 09, 2013

Education Week: Memphis-Shelby Schools Merge Amid Uncertainty

While plans are forging ahead this summer for joining Memphis' 140,000-student school system with the surrounding suburban district, school officials also have to take into account the possibility that the unification might be temporary.

The Memphis and Shelby County, Tenn., districts officially merged July 1. For one year at least, the unified district will be the nation's 14th largest, and the planning for the merger has involved board members and district leaders from both legacy systems.

The merger stemmed from the city schools' desire to be more financially stable.

"The merger gave us the opportunity to identify inefficiencies. Our community had to come together to improve and invest in the schools," said Kenya Bradshaw, a fellow with the Minneapolis-based Policy Innovators in Education Network, who served on a transition planning committee for the new district.

However, several municipalities in the surrounding county will vote next month to determine whether new school districts will be carved out of the newly unified system starting in 2014-15. Differing racial demographics have also emerged as an issue.

Although district officials say the system is ready to open schools' doors in August, the possibility of those further changes has affected the planning, said Daniel Kiel, a law professor at the University of Memphis who also served on the transition planning committee.

"There's so much uncertainty about whether the new municipal districts are going to exist," he said.

Read the full article here.

June 06, 2013

The Endangered School District

The Endangered School District: The Promise and Challenge of Redistributing Control of Public Education

Abstract: One constant in American public education reform has been the existence of a single local entity – the school district – with operational responsibility. In some places, that is changing. Fueled by undercurrents in education reform such as the embrace of broader school choice and an increase in state involvement in local education, as well as federal political alignment supporting these undercurrents, some communities are embracing a radical structural reform that redistributes operational control across a series – or portfolio – of autonomous entities.

In such communities – typically large, urban school systems serving a student population that is largely poor and made up of minority students – the term “district” no longer applies. The broad, district-wide authority of a school board and superintendent is being dispersed to a variety of operators, including state education departments, private (i.e., charter school) operators, and the preexisting district itself. Each operator enjoys substantial or even total independence from other operators, generating an autonomy that has not existed within the traditional district structure.

The Endangered School District describes the causes and ramifications of such a substantial departure from the traditional district model and offers case studies from two communities – New Orleans, LA, and Memphis/Shelby County, TN – at the epicenter of urban education reform. Building on scholarship evaluating the theory of expanded school choice and operational autonomy, these case studies help demonstrate the practical challenges of applying these theories beyond isolated schools to entire educational communities.

There is great disagreement about the wisdom of transitioning toward a portfolio model for public education. The Endangered School District simply accepts the development as the emerging trend that it is and offers insight from two communities for making the most of such a radical structural change.

First, the article describes the undercurrents that are enabling the portfolio strategy and the ramifications – administrative, legal and philosophical – of moving away from the traditional district model. After introducing the case studies, the article next examines the respective new models in depth in order to evaluate whether either can deliver as a strategy to increase educational opportunities for students. Specifically, the article identifies the dangers that these structural reforms may simply reorganize the stratified educational systems they seek to eliminate or that they may not be financially, legally, or politically sustainable over time and on such a large scale. Rather than merely identifying these challenges, the article then goes on to identify legal structures – such as state laws or bilateral agreements between public school authorizers and public school operators or even among operators themselves – that can help minimize these risks.

This article appeared in the Boston University Public Interest Law Journal.  The full article is available here.