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Local Control in 2012- Myth or Reality?

Some time ago, I blogged on the extraordinary moment when the board of the Memphis City Schools – a 100,000 student urban district serving a high poverty student population – voted to dissolve itself.  This dissolution, which was later ratified in a local referendum, triggered a merger of MCS with the surrounding suburban district, Shelby County Schools (40,000 students, approximately 35% free/reduced lunch).  With less than a year to go before the merger takes effect, I write now with a brief update, some new details, and the promise for more on this turn of events (which I could truly appreciate as being fascinating from a scholarly standpoint if only it didn’t mean so much to my community!).

First, the update… the dissolution of MCS led to a legal black hole as to what the next step would be.  That hole was filled by new legislation and a federal lawsuit that included nearly every governmental body in Shelby County.  Ultimately, what emerged was (1) a 21-person appointed transition team charged with crafting a merger plan; (2) a 23-person elected countywide school board that combined the 2 preexisting boards and added 7 new members; and (3) a timeline that involved separate operation of the districts for 2 years with a merger to take effect in August 2013.  To date, the merger plan has been completed and implementation has begun. 

However, as though this challenge were not enough, a parallel effort by suburban municipalities to create separate school districts triggered its own legislation and litigation.  The most recent news was a ruling last week holding the legislation permitting such efforts to be in violation of the Tennessee constitution’s ban on “special legislation” targeting a single county (i.e., not generally applicable throughout the state).  Had the municipal districts survived this challenge, an equal protection claim was slated for trial in early 2013.

To me, the debate about municipal districts evidenced a disconnect between the perception and the reality of local control in contemporary public education.  Clearly, there was substantial enthusiasm for local control within the municipalities – all six suburbs voted overwhelmingly to both create new districts and raise local (sales) taxes to do so.  (as an aside, it is worth noting that the county is already the primary local funder in Tennessee, so even prior to the merger, the districts shared the countywide tax base- they will continue to do so into the future and would have even had municipal districts come to be)  This enthusiasm was based on the perception that local control was, as Chief Justice Burger might say, “essential to …support for public schools and to quality of the educational process.” (Milliken)

However, does that perception match the role of local school districts in 2012?  Maybe it does on public support, but do local districts still have enough say to impact the educational process?  With charter schools and state takeover districts and vouchers and even semi-autonomous magnets growing in the landscape?  With common core standards and state-mandated tests and Race to the Top incentives guiding curricular and policy decisions?  This is not a question about whether local control should or shouldn’t exist, but about whether it actually does.

Aside from this wrinkle to the merger story here in Memphis, there are some very interesting proposals that could prove useful to districts across the nation, particularly urban districts adjusting to situations where school operation is being decentralized among autonomous operators.  More to come on that another day.

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    The Edjurist - Information on School and Educational Law - Blog - Local Control in 2012- Myth or Reality?