Study criticizes TN law on school district secession, cites Shelby, Hamilton County examples

A new study on school district secession around the nation says Tennessee law makes it easier than most any other state for wealthy, predominantly-white small cities to set up separate school systems from predominantly-black poor areas.

It cites the formation of six new school systems in Shelby County under a 2011 law as a leading example and also uses as an example plans in the works for Signal Mountain to set up a school system separate from Hamilton County.

The report is HERE. Chalkbeat Tennessee has an article on the report, HERE, that includes commentary from Shelby County officials. An excerpt:

 EdBuild researchers said the growing trend toward school secession is cementing segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines and exacerbating inequities in public education.

And Shelby County is among the worst examples, they say.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

… Terry Roland, a Shelby County commissioner who supported the pullouts, said the secession wasn’t about race, but about having local control and creating better opportunities for students in their communities. “There are a lot of problems in the inner city and big city that we don’t have in municipalities in terms of poverty and crime,” Roland told Chalkbeat on the eve of the report’s release. “We’re able to give folks more opportunities because our schools are smaller.”

However, the report asserts that money was at the root of the pullouts. Through taxes raised at the countywide level, suburban residents were financially supporting Memphis City Schools. The effort to create a special school district was aimed at raising funds that would stay with suburban schools and potentially doing away with a shared countywide property tax, which would have been disastrous for the Memphis district.

Except from a U.S. News and World Report article on the study:

“It’s almost criminal,” says Rebecca Sibilia, founder of EdBuild, a nonprofit that focuses on education funding and inequality, which published a report Wednesday that tracks school district secessions around the country.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities,” Sibilia says. “This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students. This is the confluence of a school funding system that incentivizes communities to cordon off wealth and the permissive processes that enable them to do just that.”

Indeed, the impact just one year after the six communities seceded from Shelby County was stark: Its budget was slashed by 20 percent, according to the report, and declining enrollment has since forced seven Memphis-area schools to closed and the district to lay off about 500 teachers in both 2015 and 2016.

The secession of the six communities in Shelby County is just the latest in a long and complicated history of school funding operations and shifting boundaries and demographics in and around the southern Tennessee city.

…When Republicans gained control of the state legislature in 2010, and it became clear that lawmakers planned to repeal the 1982 law, the Memphis school board voted to dissolve itself into Shelby County entirely, ceding its autonomy as a way to ensure it wouldn’t lose the financial support.

But the legislature not only repealed the 1982 ban, it also put in place a process that makes it startlingly easy for municipalities to peel away, giving the green light to six communities that have already seceded from Shelby County and others across the state seeking to do that same. (Note: The law was known as the Norris-Todd Act, named after the Shelby County Republicans who sponsored it, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and then-Rep. Curry Todd, both of Collierville, one of the towns that set up its own system.)

Today, Tennessee has one of the most lax secession policies in the entire country: In order to create a new city school district, according to EdBuild’s analysis, the only requirements are that a municipality has a student population of 1,500 and the support of a majority of municipal voters.

Tennessee is one of three states – the others are Alabama and Mississippi – that does not require approval from any county or state authority.

“The repeal of the ban on new districts cleared the way for almost any Tennessee community seeking to segregate itself from its poorer neighbors,” Sibilia says.

Four communities in Hamilton County, which includes Chattanooga, are considering secession from the district, according to the EdBuild report.

Signal Mountain, for example, a Hamilton County suburb where the U.S. Census estimates no children live in poverty and where the county’s top-performing schools are located, has already begun studying the feasibility of seceding from Hamilton County, which has a 21 percent child poverty rate. Signal Mountain also enrolls a very small percentage of students of color.

At a recent school board meeting, the Signal Mountain committee conducting the feasibility estimated that the new district would have an additional $1.8 million as a results of seceding and retaining its tax base.

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