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VOL. 127 | NO. 93 | Friday, May 11, 2012

Dan Conaway

Dan Conaway

Learning From Wrecks

By Dan Conaway

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SPEAKING OF EDUCATION, WE DON’T LEARN. The weight of his robes bearing down, the certain confusion and probable chaos resulting from his next words, the U.S. District judge in Memphis adjusted his glasses, took a deep breath, and changed public education in his hometown forever.

Forty years ago. And right now.

In 1972, the judge was Robert McRae. If you don’t remember that year or recognize that name, you missed the giant yellow bus that ran head first into societal barriers, carrying the ugly truth in black and white, driving tens of thousands of whites to the suburbs, and delivering the initial private school explosion that resonates and grows to this day. Two years before, the city and county refused to acknowledge the problem of segregation and separation and the reality of shared destiny, and voted down consolidation. Since we offered local denial instead of solution, the federal government and the Supreme Court gave Judge McRae little choice but to use busing to desegregate Memphis City Schools. The result was a huge wreck.

Déjà vu – a French expression that means grab onto something, because we’re about to have another huge wreck.

This one’s different. This time we’re trying to drive the solution ourselves, trying to openly address the problem of public education in all of Shelby County with unified, informed and inspired solutions to advance all of our children – all of our children – toward a better chance for all of us – all of us – tomorrow.

But this time the wreck is headed our way from Nashville, not from Washington. Our very own suburban Shelby legislators set the course to benefit the few over the many, even grabbing the wheel and changing course again when we seemed to be making progress. This time, instead of inviting the federal government in by standing still on segregation like we did in 1972, the state has singled out Shelby County and is driving full-speed ahead to officially segregate city and county by setting de facto economic, social and racial boundaries.

Mark Norris, driver of this express, was quoted in The Commercial Appeal as saying he was helping the suburbs, “not just to form their own school system but to form a system that can help unify the county, by being part of the unified system … .”

Say what, Mark?

Unifying us by forming seven or eight school districts instead of one? Creating seven or eight school boards instead of one, creating seven or eight new tax rates, seven or eight new budget crises, seven or eight new fist fights for state budget support and seven or eight new state and federal lawsuits?

Really?

This time, under the weight of those robes, I predict another U.S. District judge in Memphis will be called upon to adjust his glasses, take a deep breath, and change public education in his hometown forever.

This judge is Hardy Mays and, this time, he can stop the wreck.

I’m a Memphian, and we should tell Nashville that this is our county and the majority of us can drive.

Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at dan@wakesomebodyup.com.

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