Memphis gives up on bootstraps reform

Memphis is giving up on bootstrapping better schools and merging with the whiter, wealthier suburbs, writes Sarah Garland of Hechinger Report in The Atlantic. That could threaten “no excuses” pilot schools and other reform strategies, she writes.

Manassas, an all-black, nearly all-poor school, has a lot going for it: a new building, a new set of intensely dedicated teachers who willingly work on Saturdays, and the attention — and money — of national foundations and advocacy groups, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

. . . Last year, 111 of 131 seniors who applied to college were accepted. (The graduating class was 150.) The previous year, only 25 graduating seniors had been accepted.

A new city-suburban board will run the new district.

In part, the merger is about money. Under a 1982 law, suburban funding has flowed to Memphis schools, but the legislature is poised to repeal the law. “By choosing to dissolve into the wealthier surrounding district, the board essentially decided to give up the school district’s autonomy in order to keep the funds rolling in.”

Memphis school board members and administrators also hope to close the achievement gap by mingling “students, teachers, and the involved parents who help drive suburban success,”  Garland writes.

“The gap closes when folks go to school together, when they play together, when they’re in afterschool programs together, and when they live in the same communities together,” (Memphis Superintendent Kriner Cash) says.

But will white, middle-class suburban parents send their kids to urban schools with low-income, black students? History says no. In 1973, when a federal court ordered busing to desegregate schools, many whites “fled for the suburbs or private schools.”  Though nobody’s proposing involuntary busing this time around, some suburban towns are talking about forming their own districts. “Both opponents and advocates have warned that many white families could move out of the county altogether,” Garland writes.


To bus or not to bus

To improve the performance of low-income students, Wake County, North Carolina’s largest district, uses busing to integrate its schools by socioeconomic status. One in six students is bused at a cost of $541.56 per student.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the second largest district, runs neighborhood schools that serve affluent kids in the suburbs, poor kids in the downtown. Millions of extra dollars go to improve high-poverty schools.

Which system works better? According to the Raleigh News & Observer, both systems are equally unsuccessful.

Only 28 percent of Wake students come from low-income families; more than half are poor in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.  Wake County’s achievement gap between whites and blacks and between low-income and middle-class students is wide.  So is Charlotte’s achievement gap. The numbers are very similar.

Some Wake County parents want to end busing and switch to the Charlotte system.