Mid-South News
6:48 pm
Fri February 4, 2011

What Happens If Memphis & Shelby County Schools Go To Court?

Memphis, TN – Both sides in the school consolidation brouhaha seem to be bracing for a court battle.

"Absolutely, going to courts has the potential to make things worse," Daniel Kiel said.

We met Daniel Kiel already. He teaches law at the University of Memphis and we did a long piece with him where he detailed how Supreme Court mandated desegregation, followed by court mandated busing, failed to genuinely integrate Memphis City Schools, or improve the quality of education.

Today those schools are 85 percent black, 87 percent economically disadvantaged; and based on 2009-2010 data from ACT, only 6 percent of seniors who took the ACT (an already self-selected group of less than four percent of total students) were college ready.

Kiel says there were two reasons desegregation of the schools didn't turn out as well as hoped. First, there was an absence of moderate leadership. Kiel says the dearth led to, "Extremely polarized positions. There was no sense of a common stake."

And the second reason, Kiel says, the quality of education took a turn for the worse is because courts got involved.

"Well, courts don't have a very good track record as educational policymakers," Kiel said. "Courts do have a very good track record of protectors of individual rights. If they did make things worse from an educational policy standpoint, it was because they were working so hard to make things right from an individual rights standpoint."

This is important because it looks like we are headed to court. And no one knows what happens then.

Tennessee has three types of school systems. And Memphis City Schools is none of those types. It's its own animal--best described as a special, "special district."

"Laws become clear by having statutes tested, evaluated, analyzed, and opined upon by courts," Kiel said. "That happens through cases." And there just aren't enough that relate to our current situation.

"We are in largely uncharted territory," Kiel said.

That's why we've had so many conflicting legal opinions on the schools already. And if State Senator Mark Norris' bill passes Monday, "Then that puts us into even further uncharted territory because," Kiel said, "now we have a statute that is brand new and, by definition, has never been tested."