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Two Views on the Memphis Schools Blues

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle offer competing visions of the General Assembly’s Memphis-Shelby schools legislation. On Thursday the Memphis City Council voted to allow the Memphis City Schools Board of Education to surrender its charter.

While the state House was passing a bill Thursday creating a transition period for a potential revamp of Shelby County schools, the rhetoric was hot on the issue down the hill from the Capitol between Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Sen. Jim Kyle.

Ramsey, R-Blountville, said it was a “landmark” issue and an opportunity for the state to do some good. Kyle, the Democratic leader from Memphis, said it was a pure power play by a Republican state government gone wild and facetiously said the next thing you know the Legislature would try to solve a fairgrounds issue in Nashville.

The bill passed in the House 64-31 along party lines, following Senate passage Monday night 20-10 in a similar party-line vote. It would provide a mechanism for transition that would go into effect in the 2013-14 school year. The Memphis City Schools board voted in December to hold a referendum on dissolving the city school district, allowing those schools to be absorbed into the county system.

Late Thursday afternoon the Memphis City Council voted to allow the Memphis City Schools Board of Education to surrender its charter. The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that city council members indicated they still want the March 8 referendum to go ahead as scheduled and could rescind Thursday’s decision if the referendum asking voters whether to transfer administrative control of city schools to Shelby County fails.

Speaking in Nashville several hours prior to Thursday’s Memphis City Council vote, Kyle said race is part of the issue and called what the Legislature has done “educational redlining.” Ramsey said the state is only doing what it should do under its constitutional responsibilities. Ramsey also said the issue had been deemed racial but that he didn’t understand why.

Ramsey and Kyle spoke in separate sessions to a Tennessee Press Association conference in downtown Nashville, and each talked to reporters after their sessions. Kyle was visibly worked up over what he saw as intrusion on a local issue. Ramsey pointed to the fact there are 103,000 students in the Memphis school system and that the state had an obligation to help them.

Kyle questioned whether Ramsey would take the same position if the dispute were between Kingsport and Bristol, both in his district.

“What is it about a dispute in Memphis that gives you a lack of confidence that people can work it out?” Kyle asked. “That’s what this is all about, a lack of confidence that the citizens of Memphis can work out their problems themselves in a way that helps children.”

Kyle said it’s a case of state government stepping in, choosing sides and deciding it knows better than the local governments.

“We have never done that,” Kyle said. “There is something about Memphis and Shelby County to cause the leadership to decide that’s what they must do, and I would say quite frankly that race is part of it.”

Kyle said the city system realized it could no longer afford the school system and that the decision was made to be like school systems in other counties. He said the Legislature’s action is part of new muscle in a Republican agenda that says, “We are large and in charge.”

Ramsey, speaking before Kyle, acknowledged that he represents a district in Upper East Tennessee that is literally closer to Canada than Memphis. He said the Memphis city school board had essentially voted to “go out of the school business,” and that the decision in Memphis was similar to those in the past in Knoxville and Chattanooga and that there needed to be a plan in place for Shelby County.

“We need a plan. We need to make sure where we’re headed,” Ramsey said. “The Memphis city school system is by far — by far — the largest school system in the state.”

He said he knew people were asking why someone in Nashville who represents Blountville has an interest in what is happening in Memphis.

“Well, folks, we are required as a state to educate our children,” Ramsey said. “It’s in our Constitution.

“When I campaigned for governor, I said we had 17 high schools in the state of Tennessee that have been on a failing list five years or longer, and 14 out of those 17 are Memphis city schools. If we don’t recognize that we need to bring this school system to a new level, we’re never going to solve our problems statewide.”

Ramsey said the size of the system is an important factor.

“You can work on the Perry counties all you want to, you can work on the Humphreys counties all you want to, but if you don’t address what’s going on in Shelby County, you’ve got a problem,” he said.

Ramsey’s perspective was in stark contrast to that of Kyle.

“If we’re ever going to raise our test scores here in Tennessee, we’re going to have to address the problems in Memphis,” Ramsey said. “We can’t just merge one school system with another school system, re-elect a school board and expect things to be different. I’m encouraging the governor for us to get together and think outside the box on this.”

Kyle had a different take.

“This isn’t about failing schools,” he said. “This is about power and control and structure and funding. This is about redlining. This is educational redlining.”

Democrats have voiced concerns that the reason for the bill is so special school districts can be formed in Memphis suburbs.

Kyle made a remark about the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville, where city leaders have grappled with what to do with the property.

“The next thing you know the Legislature is going to solve that fairgrounds problem. Because obviously the people of Davidson County don’t have enough sense to solve that problem, so I guess we’ll just file a bill to fix that,” Kyle said. “Why not? I mean, we know it all. Republicans would say, ‘We’re the state government, and we’re here to help.'”

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