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VOL. 130 | NO. 67 | Tuesday, April 7, 2015

School Competition Shows Promise, Threat

By Bill Dries

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The competition among Shelby County Schools, the Achievement School District and charter schools has been a positive for public schools, say two Shelby County Schools board members.


But board chairwoman Teresa Jones and board member Chris Caldwell say the competition of the last three school years also has split the funding and could threaten classroom success.


“We cannot exist in that climate. At some point it becomes unmanageable,” Jones said on the WKNO TV program Behind The Headlines. “We never get our balance. We never have two or three years as other systems have where we can just do the work – we can just educate children. Every year we are struggling, and we are fighting for survival.”

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen at The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com

Like Jones, Caldwell acknowledged there are other factors behind the school closings the board approved recently for the next school year.

“One of the primary reasons is how the neighborhoods have changed and where the population growth is, and that’s outside of anything the board has control over,” he said. “We have people that are very passionate about these schools. But they don’t even live in the neighborhood anymore and in a lot of instances don’t even have a kid in the school.”

But with the most recent round of closings and consolidations, the school system also made a deliberate decision to send the displaced students to Innovation Zone schools, the SCS version of the Achievement School District schools in terms of autonomy and extra funding for more learning intervention.

“We want that model for every school,” Jones said. “It comes down to dollars. It comes down to money.”

And Jones is quick to note that the state funding for I-Zone Schools also is shared with Achievement School District schools. Both specifically target the bottom five percent of all schools in the state in terms of student achievement.

“My wish would be that the resources and the commitment to the ASD would transfer into forming I-Zones throughout this community and allowing Shelby County (Schools) to do the work that it has shown it can do,” she said. She noted that the first results from ASD schools and I-Zone schools in student achievement test results show I-Zone outperforming ASD in math, reading and science student proficiency.

“Splitting those resources and creating competition may have made sense in the beginning,” Jones added. “But in these last few years, we’ve done what they’ve asked us to do – do better by kids, create a learning environment that’s conducive. We’ve done that. We have a model. Don’t limit us by continuing to divide.”

“If it’s true competition then the resources should go to the models that are working the best,” Caldwell said.

That’s not likely to happen at least for now. The Achievement School District’s creation by state law sets a five-year time frame for the goal of taking schools in the bottom five percent to the top 25 percent.

Caldwell describes the situation as having “two more innings” left.

But he said in that time the state should step up its game in terms of funding for Shelby County Schools.

“It’s caused a lot of chaos. It’s really roiled a lot of communities. The competition aspect of it has been good,” he said, pointing to the state school improvement grants that I-Zone and ASD schools rely on to push for the better results with students. “It just points back to a lot of it has been because of the inadequacy of funding.”

Jones says the school system has trimmed a $125 million deficit in its proposed budget to $25 million in red ink.

The school system is among those talking with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam about some increase in state funding likely less than the $103 million the school system would realize if the state fully funded the Basic Education Program funding formula.

“I hope the county commission will hear our plea and understand we have done everything we can do,” she said. “At some point we are going to start hemorrhaging and we may be there now in terms of being able to provide those services if we don’t have stability in terms of increased funding.”

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