Breakaway districts

Memphis-Shelby County spotlighted in national report on school district secession

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

The 2014 exodus of six suburban towns from the newly consolidated Memphis school system is one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class, says a new report.

The Shelby County towns are among 47 that have seceded from large school districts nationally since 2000. Another nine, including the town of Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn., are actively pursuing separation, according to the report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality.

EdBuild researchers said the growing trend toward school secession is cementing segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines and exacerbating inequities in public education.

And Shelby County is among the worst examples, they say.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

After the 2014 pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve worked to build their school systems from the ground up.

The report says Tennessee’s law is among the most permissive of the 30 states that allow some communities to secede from larger school districts. It allows a municipality with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

PHOTO: EdBuild
States that don’t prohibit secession from school districts are shaded in blue.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities. This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “This is the confluence of a school funding system that incentivizes communities to cordon off wealth and the permissive processes that enable them to do just that.”

The Shelby County pullout is known in Memphis as the “de-merger,” which happened one year after the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the suburban county district known as Legacy Shelby County Schools. The massive changes occurred as a result of a series of chess moves that began in 2010 after voters elected a Republican supermajority in Tennessee for the first time in history.

Under the new political climate, Shelby County’s mostly white and more affluent suburbs sought to establish a special school district that could have stopped countywide funding from flowing to the mostly black and lower income Memphis district. In a preemptive strike, the city’s school board surrendered its charter and Memphians voted soon after to consolidate the city and county districts. The suburbs — frustrated over becoming a partner in a consolidated school system they didn’t vote for — soon convinced the legislature to change a state law allowing them to break away and form their own districts, which they did.

Terry Roland, a Shelby County commissioner who supported the pullouts, said the secession wasn’t about race, but about having local control and creating better opportunities for students in their communities. “There are a lot of problems in the inner city and big city that we don’t have in municipalities in terms of poverty and crime,” Roland told Chalkbeat on the eve of the report’s release. “We’re able to give folks more opportunities because our schools are smaller.”

The report asserts that money was at the root of the pullouts. Through taxes raised at the countywide level, suburban residents were financially supporting Memphis City Schools. The effort to create a special school district was aimed at raising funds that would stay with suburban schools and potentially doing away with a shared countywide property tax, which would have been disastrous for the Memphis district.

"These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result."Rebecca Sibilia, CEO, EdBuild

“What we’re talking about here is the notion of people pulling out of a tax base that’s for the public good,” Sibilia said. “That’s akin to saying you’re not going to pay taxes for a library because you’re not going to use it. … You can see this as racially motivated, but we found it was motivated much more by socioeconomics.”

The report asserts that funding new smaller districts is inefficient and wasteful.

The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on the larger districts (of 25,000 to 49,999 students), according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more per pupil on administrative costs.

Under Tennessee’s current law, Sibilia believes the Shelby County de-merger is only the first of more secessions to come. She notes that Tennessee’s law is similar to one in Alabama, where a fourth of the nation’s secessions have occurred. Already in Chattanooga, residents of Signal Mountain are in their second year of studying whether to leave the Hamilton County Department of Education.

“There’s a direct link between very permissive policies and the number of communities that take advantage of them,” Sibilia said. “These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result.”

Editor’s note: Details about the merger-demerger have been added to this version of the story.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

The big sort

Do selective admissions actually help middle schools choose the best students? This Manhattan dad says no.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 recently gathered to learn about the middle school admissions process. Eric Goldberg wants District 2 to end selective admissions methods that many middle schools use determine admissions.

Eric Goldberg wants to change the debate around whether public schools should be allowed to select their students based on test scores, report card grades, and other factors.

A parent leader on the Community Education Council in District 2, Goldberg is proposing a resolution to put a hold on that that practice, known as “screening,” across the district’s middle schools. District 2 stretches from Lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side.

Many question whether sorting students by academic ability is fair, and critics say it exacerbates segregation. Goldberg’s criticism is different: He questions whether the sorting mechanisms actually work to distinguish among students and pick those with the most academic potential. 

“From the basic design to the implementation, this process is riddled with issues,” he said. “It makes it essentially worthless.”

His resolution would be merely symbolic but would add to the growing criticism of the methods many New York City schools use to select students. Community leaders in one Brooklyn district have called for an end to selective admissions in their middle schools, and Chancellor Richard Carranza recently called screening “antithetical” to public education.

Like other critics of the screening process, Goldberg is worried about whether the current system is equitable. But he also thinks that starting with more basic questions is a better way to convince parents that something has to change.

“We’ve set up this tension between a system that values merit and a system that values diversity,” he said. “But we haven’t asked… is this system actually determining who has merit?”

Goldberg said he has some support from fellow council members, who are expected to vote on the resolution this fall after a series of community discussions. Ultimately, the council doesn’t have the power to change admissions in the district — that’s up to the Department of Education and local school leaders. But parent buy-in has proven integral to pushing integration efforts elsewhere, and a show of support for such a dramatic step could serve as an important signal to city officials.

When talking to Chalkbeat, Goldberg had this to say about the flaws he sees in the system, and what he thinks it will take to accomplish meaningful change.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What are you proposing for District 2 middle schools?

We would like District 2 to place a moratorium on screening until we can have a full assessment of the process, because our belief is that it is unfair to keep it in place and subject another set of students to a deeply flawed process.

In your view, what are the flaws?

There’s no standardized grading system in place. One school could have a scale of 1 to 4 for grading, another school could have a scale of 1 to 100. There is no oversight in place to ensure that grade distribution within schools, within a classroom, is somewhat standardized — let alone across schools.

If you look at other aspects like testing, it’s clear and it’s known that many students are tutored for the [state] test. It’s clear that these tests were designed as diagnostic assessments rather than assessments to be used for selection. We’ve pushed back on whether these state tests should be used for teacher evaluations, but yet, for some reason, we sit on the sidelines and allow our students to be assessed by them.

If you go to attendance — which to me is probably the most pernicious of all — attendance for 10-year-olds is schools choosing families…For a 10-year-old to get to school on-time, they are fully dependant on their caregiver.

The last area is school-based assessments and interviews. Many of the schools administer their own math or English tests and assessments. But no one has reviewed those tests to make sure that they’re up to standards in terms of being reliable and valid indicators of student performance. Many of these schools also do interviews, but yet, the interviewers have had no training, and there’s no standards in place for how those interviews are run. They don’t have unconscious bias training. And there’s really no transparency around what questions are asked and whether or not they’re valid.

Why are you focusing on whether this process is reliable, rather than on whether it’s fair — as other critics are doing?

There will be a lot of discussion and tension around the rationale for screens and what purpose they serve, around the impact that screens have and whether that impact is fair and equitable. But I think, at the most basic level, we should have more agreement and unanimity to see the flaws in this process. My belief is that as people understand how deeply flawed this process is, that they will take a step back and assess screening as a whole.

So is this just the first step before diving into the bigger question of whether screening is fair?

Those are conversations that we certainly should be having as a school system and as a community. But I think it takes away some of the pressure and high-stakes nature of that conversation if we can get consensus that this system is flawed in terms of its design and implementation, and we should end a flawed system.

District 2 has been debating how to make its schools more diverse for some time now. What have you accomplished so far?  

The way District 2 has made progress is, first, around transparency. The fact that schools are actually sharing (admissions) rubrics today is a big change from where we were two or three years ago. But there’s still a huge gap because the schools still don’t share what score on a rubric actually led to an admission.

We’ve been able to engage schools and principals in a deeper conversation around middle school admissions, and some of the schools have taken what I think are big steps around applying for, and now implementing, diversity in admissions set-asides for low-income students at three of our most selective schools.

I also think we’ve made strides in having conversations with the community, but we haven’t been able to drive to more significant structural changes. One of the tensions that we see — and that probably a lot of districts see — is do we work toward incremental change, or do we work on holistic, system-wide changes?

Given that tension, what do you think needs to happen?

First and foremost, it’s really our middle school principals, and District 2 administration, and the DOE, who right now have the sole discretion, power, and authority to set the admissions standards for District 2.

Second is continuing to build support within the parent community in District 2 around changes to the middle school admissions process. One of the difficulties there is that constituency, which often are fourth-grade parents, is that once they’re through the process, if you ask them to reflect on the process, they would have significant issues with how it affected their kids. But once they pass through and move on to middle school, then it recedes into the background.

I think there’s also a message that’s being sent by the new chancellor that this is a deeply flawed system and many of the commonly held assumptions that we have in place, we need to question and challenge. Our principals and administrators need to bring that message forward to action.

Within the parent community, there will be debate, discussion, and contention. Our school leaders, people look to them for guidance, and they have the respect and reputation within the community to actually drive change. My hope is that Chancellor Carranza is giving all them more space to speak on and advocate for what they think is right.

What would a better middle school admissions system look like in District 2?

I think that this should be a collaborative development of a system that values our students and values the education environment that we want. I look to the community to come up with ideas.

I want to maintain student choice but I don’t believe there’s any value in assessment and selection of our students. So I don’t believe there should be any screens in place.

This system continues to work for select people and select subgroups, and those are the people who want us to perpetuate [it]. They are people of financial means, people with time resources, people with social capital. They are resourced in a way that works for them. But for 10- and 11-year-olds, we need a system that works for everyone.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Each of these 10-year-olds has incredible potential. This screening system asks us to make distinctions around potential with tools that tell us nothing. At best, they’re telling us about their past performance, their family support, and maybe what they’ve been exposed to outside of school.