A Rare Compromise: Memphis & Shelby County Schools' Court Settlement

Memphis, TN – All appointments have now been made to a 23-member merged Shelby County school board and a 21-member transition team. The board, the transition team, and a great deal else about the consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County Schools were settled on in federal court. This isn't the first time a court has gotten involved in education policy. In the 1970s federal courts ordered the desegregation of schools in Memphis, Shelby County, and across the country by busing.

"There was such a negative backlash to busing orders. The federal judges, in particular, were seen to have lost legitimacy," Daniel Kiel said.

Kiel is a professor of law with a flair for history. If Kiel's voice sounds familiar, that's because we've had him on the radio before. Back then, Kiel detailed how desegregation by court-mandated busing failed to genuinely integrate Memphis City Schools, or improve the quality of education. Today Memphis schools are 85 percent black, 87 percent economically disadvantaged and based on 2009-2010 data from ACT, only 6 percent of Memphis seniors who took the ACT were college ready. The Shelby County Schools, by comparison, are whiter and more affluent and perform better on national and state tests. Back then, Kiel said, "We can look back at the history and learn what went wrong that led to the, sort of, next 30 years of divided schooling that resulted in the city schools achievement levels getting to the, you know, the low level that they are now."

The busing decision in the 1970s divided residents along racial lines. This time round, the school consolidation case divided residents along the city line--Memphis residents, overall, supported school consolidation, and people who live in the county outside of Memphis didn't. And in both cases it was up to a federal court to arbitrate between the two sides. That's where the similarities end.

Kiel says the judge in the busing case in Memphis, "Begged and pleaded for the sides to come to some agreement and the sides came to him with extreme positions." Kiel said. "And, by the way, both sides appealed that ruling."

The school consolidation case was settled radically differently--both the Memphis school board and the Shelby County school board, the city, the city council, and the county commission all signed onto a Memorandum of Understanding. And they promised not to appeal.

"Judge [Samuel] Mays did the same kind of pleading, 'Let's come to an agreement, let's come to an agreement,' and, I think, took a very active role in walking the parties towards one another," Kiel said. "You know, this was a really good moment in education history here, or at least, has the potential to be a really good moment."

The agreement calls for 44 people in total to plan and execute school consolidation. Kiel is one of them. He was appointed to the transition team by Memphis City Schools Board President Martavius Jones.

"There is a chance to make a district that is better than either one was separately. You know, I don't think that that is a guarantee. There is an opportunity, but there is no magic wand here where we are going to, you know, as a community wave our hand over education, and it's going to automatically get better. It's going to be hard work," Kiel said.

Whether history will look back on us kindly depends, "In part on how we as residents of Shelby County respond," Kiel said, "because, again, going back to the busing decision history looks back on it unkindly not for the decision in and of itself, which is defensible, but rather the way it was responded to."