Planning Commission Reworking System Structure

By Bill Dries

The schools consolidation planning commission isn’t quite ready to vote on a structure for the consolidated countywide system to come. That milestone vote may come Thursday, March 8.

The hold up is how the new system will handle decisions that are already being dictated by other events in education reform like charter schools and the state’s Achievement School District.

Those events have turned the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems into a part of a larger schools reformation already under way.

Whatever structure the new system debuts with at the start of the 2013-2014 school year, there will be more than 100 public schools across the county that have already taken a path to autonomy. It’s the phrase used in the proposed plan for groups of schools that want more freedom to pursue different paths in education.

“The real difference is not whether schools can become charter or convert to charters or use that trigger – because they can. They very well might,” said Barbara Prescott, chairwoman of the planning commission. “It’s do we embrace it as a philosophy – as part of our philosophy.”

The embrace means specific definitions for goals like “every child ready for school” and “every student ready for success in college and career.” Those are the educational outcomes or goals the planning commission has approved to set the stage for a structure.

“There are an awful lot of ‘every’s’ in there,” Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said of the goals as he expressed concern that the aspiration might become a specific standard.

“A few years down the road people say this is a failure because everyone’s not doing that,” McDonald said. “I understand it’s a goal. … It concerns me as far as what standards someone might be held to in the future.”

Specific wording noting that those are aspirations eased McDonald’s concern.

Fellow planning commissioner Christine Richards had concerns that a path to autonomy for some schools might “exacerbate” the problem of student mobility and the educational problems created by students who switch schools month to month or year to year. She didn’t buy the idea that charter-like schools would solve the problem just through their existence or that a more consistent curriculum from one school to another would remedy the issue.

“I don’t think you can presume it’s going to change,” she said. “It does not get across the bridge.”

But countywide school board member Martavius Jones argued a plan for a merged school district can’t immediately solve problems that cross institutional barriers – most notably the city’s historically high rate of poverty that prompts many decisions to switch schools.

“That’s a reality that we have to deal with,” he said. “If we can through this process raise educational outcomes therefore raise the economic outcome, we can have that ideal system where mobility is not such an issue. But I don’t think this is anything that changes in the immediate future.”

Planning commissioner Katie Stanton wants more input from teacher and parent teacher association groups. She is the former head of the Shelby County Education Association.

Without either, she said “there really isn’t anybody out there to speak loudly for our children.”

She also expressed concern about a goal of more parent involvement especially “the children who are going to be – I’m going to say – left in the schools that are not charter schools because they do not have a parent or adult in their life who is either able, willing or interested in making sure the child gets in the best schools possible.”

The comment highlights the challenge the group faces as it takes another step toward a structure that appears likely to have two tiers – one that is a centralized school system and the other a decentralized system in which the centralized system facilitates, provides services to and encourages the formation of charter-like schools operating under contracts.

The discussion is how to put the two tiers on the same level without one tier becoming the top tier and the other the bottom tier.

“We want to be sure there’s equity. We want to be sure there’s choice,” Prescott said. “We still want to be sure that every single neighborhood school is a school that would meet a child’s needs.”