The governor this week signed a bill pushed by suburban Memphis lawmakers that will allow outlying, often wealthier communities in Shelby county to create their own municipal school districts rather than remain in a county-wide consolidated district that also includes struggling inner-city schools.
The legislation was sponsored by Curry Todd in the House and and Majority Leader Mark Norris in the Senate, both of whom are Republicans from the Memphis suburb of Collierville. It passed 70-24 in the House and 24-5 in the Senate.
Before the law was passed, Tennessee maintained a ban on the creation of new municipal school systems in towns that didn’t already operate one. This rule, the bill’s sponsors argued, was too rigid and outdated to accommodate classroom innovation and school choice.
“This is a bill that all Tennesseans will be proud of,” Todd said during debate on the House floor. “It gives parents a choice about educating their children and where they want their children to be educated.”
Only three Democrats in the Tennessee General Assembly voted in favor of the bill. They were Sen. Reginald Tate, who serves as chairman of the Shelby County state legislative delegation, along with Reps. Antonio Parkinson, also from Memphis, and John Tidwell of New Johnsonville. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, abstained from voting in the House.
Only one Republican in each chamber voted against the legislation: Bill Dunn of Knoxville in the House and Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga in the Senate.
Dunn predicted that the change in law will result in children from outside a local school’s taxing jurisdiction attending a particular school inside of it. That situation will likely in time create resentment among parents who reside inside the district, said Dunn, and that may well lead to their demanding that the parents of children outside the district pay their own way to attend– or, alternatively, that those children be prevented from attending.
“If this does go into effect, we are going to see some problems down the road,” Dunn said just prior to the House floor vote on the measure April 15.
While the new law technically applies to the whole state, it largely grew out of a contentious decision by the Memphis school board and residents to dissolve their school district in favor of being absorbed by the county.
Many residents in outlying communities balked at the idea of having to help support Memphis’s poor-performing public schools and worried that stretching funds to include them would lower the quality of schools already in the district. The bill allowing towns to create their own, separate school systems was seen as a way to address those concerns.
But that prospect doesn’t sit well with some lawmakers, especially the largely Democratic delegation from the city of Memphis.
One such outspoken critic was state Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, who spoke to TNReport shortly after the bill passed the upper chamber earlier this month.
The law, Kyle said, would “lead to a balkanization in all our counties where economic areas that are superior to other economic areas will want to have their schools systems all to themselves. Now I’ll be looking at a county with seven school systems and I don’t see how you have any unity that way.”
Kyle, the Senate minority leader, brushed of the call from supporters to increase flexibility and choice. “That is just some effort to justify the reality — the reality being people in the suburbs not wanting to be with people in the city,” he said.
Now that the governor has signed the bill into law, municipalities can start the process of creating their own school systems which includes holding local referendums and meeting certain readiness requirements from the State Board of Education.