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Why Memphis mayoral candidates aren’t talking about how they would improve local schools

Mayor A C Wharton greets Shelby County high school students during a summer program graduation ceremony in July.
Mayor A C Wharton greets Shelby County high school students during a summer program graduation ceremony in July.
Kayleigh Skinner

Weeks before the new school year, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton stood before hundreds of new teachers at a summer training session and heralded their role in a city seeking to transform its schools and lift its students out of mediocrity and outright failure.

“You are doing God’s work. You are doing what no government can do … ,” Wharton told the new educators. “You are molding the future of our very city.”

Wharton’s words spoke volumes, especially related to “what government can do” in a city that has essentially divested itself of any responsibility in administering, funding or championing local schools.

It also brings up the significance of education in conversations about choosing Memphis’ next mayor on Oct. 8 — whether it’s Wharton or one of eight challengers — as well as what the mayor’s role should be in supporting school improvement efforts and marshaling resources in behalf of the city’s chronically failing schools.

In some cities, mayors have clamored for more control of schools as a way to follow through on their promises related to education. That hasn’t happened in Memphis, where the mayor actually has lost influence over schools in recent decades, even though the city’s quality of education directly impacts quality of life, quality of the local workforce, and potential for economic growth.

“The position of (Memphis) mayor is important in almost every aspect of city law, but whether they have direct control over education matters is another issue. They really don’t any more,” said Marcus Pohlmann, chairman of the political science department at Rhodes College and author of “Opportunity Lost: Race and Poverty in Memphis City Schools.”

The divide widened in 2008 when the Memphis City Council voted to withhold $57 million from the former Memphis City Schools. At the time, former superintendent Willie Herenton was city mayor and signed off on the action. The city argued that the school system owed the city for previous debts, and that it was not legally required to provide funding to the district.

Two years later, the city school board voted to surrender its charter and the city council quickly approved the move, setting up a local referendum in which voters opted to merge city schools with the suburban county district to create a unified Shelby County Schools. Eventually, the Shelby County Commission became the sole local funding agent for the unified school district.

This mayoral election will mark the first since the 2013 merger that turned Shelby County Schools into the state’s largest public school district and one of the city’s largest employers.

Even so, public education has received little attention from the candidates. At a recent forum attended by five candidates, debate was dominated by topics such as crime, industry and economic stability. Responding to the few questions asked about education, the candidates agreed that building strong schools is important, but offered few specifics about how they would tackle the challenge.

“The city has a responsibility to education, and I think somehow we’ve confused the fact that we’re no longer sending checks out there, that we have no responsibility for education,” Wharton said.

City Councilman Jim Strickland, a challenger, agreed. “We no longer fund the city schools, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of the education business,” said Strickland, adding that it’s the mayor’s responsibility to push for pre-kindergarten and after-school programs that are critical in helping to equalize opportunities for impoverished children.

The city has seen its schools diminish in recent years with the creation of suburban municipal districts, the introduction of charter schools operated by nonprofit groups, and state-run management of the city’s lowest-performing schools — all of which disperses responsibility for local schools and makes it harder for a mayor to have an impact.

Budgetary and funding matters for Shelby County Schools is now the responsibility of the county, where Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has urged the district to rethink the cost of K-12 education amid shrinking resources and school consolidation.

How the next or incumbent Memphis mayor could impact local education depends on whether he or she chooses to use available avenues to be more influential, or opts for a largely ceremonial role.

In Memphis, unlike cities like New York and Chicago, the mayor has no direct control over the city’s K-12 schools. The district’s board members are chosen by voters, and the board hires the superintendent, which oversees administration of school operations.

But, regardless of whether a city charter prescribes any formal role for mayors to guide their local district, the U.S. Conference of Mayors views the mayor’s education leadership as critical, particularly in ensuring equal access to a high-quality public education for children attending struggling schools. For instance, most constituents still look to the mayor to show leadership on pivotal issues, particularly involving the children who one day will grow up to be the city’s next generation of contributors — or detractors.

“You cannot have a great city without great schools,” according to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “We know that when schools fail, cities pay the price in terms of economy, public safety and quality of life.”

Even without mayoral control of schools, mayors can choose to use their office as a bully pulpit to bring together education stakeholders and lead their communities in facing educational challenges. They can work to forge key partnerships among public, private and nonprofit sectors. They can make sure that city services such as public safety, facility use and recreational programs align with and support district, school and student needs.

In Memphis, where a quarter of the city’s more than 656,000 people are ages 18 and under and nearly half live in poverty, the educational challenges include an abysmally low literacy rate, truancy issues and chronic state underfunding. Grassroots discussions to resurrect Memphis City Schools haven’t gained traction.

“I think there are probably a few areas that the mayor can have a direct impact on education,” said Hopson, the unified district’s first superintendent. “The first one is developing some real policies to eradicate poverty. Start to address the poverty issue, because what we see so often is that poverty has such a direct correlation to student achievement.”

Hopson stressed that mayoral support of an early childhood program would benefit the city.

“I would like to see the mayor be a champion for pre-K,” he said.

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