final argument

Uncertainty about debate’s future as Shelby Debate Society abruptly ends operations

PHOTO: Shelby Debate Society
Shelby Debate Society students visit with Sen. Lamar Alexander at the 2013 Urban Debate National Championship Tournament In Washington, D.C.

A nonprofit league that organizes speech and debate tournaments for students across Shelby County appears to have abruptly shut down, leaving teams at dozens of schools in the lurch.

The board of the seven-year-old Shelby Debate Society voted to cease operations last week, executive director Dwight Fryer told coaches and others in an email on Friday. The nonprofit had experienced “challenges with fund raising and has a deficit for this fiscal year,” he wrote, adding that he was stepping down.

The message, which is now Fryer’s email auto-response but does not appear on the debate society’s website, says Shelby County Schools “has been encouraged” to take over the group’s operations.

The lack of specificity about what might happen to the tournaments and teams that the society has organized alarmed coaches.

Jon Alfuth, one of the society’s nearly 40 coaches, said of Fryer’s suggestion for the district to take over, “That’s the part that got me a little freaked out. … There’s a lot of uncertainty at this point.”

Shelby County Schools officials declined to comment on the possibility of the district taking over the society but suggested that it might find a way to work with the society’s board of supporters.

“Right now, we are still hopeful our partnership with the Shelby Debate Commission will continue,” the district said in a statement.

Fryer said in the email that he had offered to train Shelby County Schools employees to run the program, which serves 250 to 350 students every year. Debate coaches, who receive a stipend for their time and travel, formed teams at about 28 high schools and middle schools. The teams spanned both district and charter schools, such as The Soulsville Charter School, where Alfuth teaches geometry and policy debate.

If the district were to take over, it is unclear if coaches at charter schools could remain involved.

The uncertainty means that students like Jamila Miller could go without a crucial extracurricular activity next year. Miller, a graduate of Soulsville Charter School, said debate brought out a sense of confidence in herself and in her peers that may not have been discovered otherwise.

Now a sophomore at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Miller was on the debate team for three years and competed in the Urban Debate National Championship in Washington, D.C. her senior year of high school.

“Not every high schooler in Memphis has access to speech classes or classes that really teach you to reason through your opinions and present an argument,” Miller said. “In this city, it’s devastating to take away programs like this that supplement student learning. We can’t just give up on this.”

Stable funding was a chronic issue for the program and worsened over the past few years, said James Sdoia, a Memphis businessman who originally founded the society as the Memphis Urban Debate League in 2008. He said he started the league because he was shocked that a debate club didn’t exist in Memphis public schools and remained on the board until two years ago.

“A debate club hadn’t existed in Memphis for 40 years when I founded this,” Sdoia said. “Students thrived in it, and so many went on to be successful in college. When I left, I knew the society would run its course unless additional funding was found. But we just can’t let this die for another 40 years.”

The society has appealed to the public for donations but failed to round up many. A crowd-funding request for a camp that had been scheduled for this week went live six months ago but raised only $310, out of a goal of $12,000, and the camp was canceled.

Debate parent Debby Howell-Moroney said she was disappointed to be told that the board decided to end the society instead of looking for a new director and additional funding. Howell-Moroney’s two children are on the debate team at White Station High School, and she herself was a debater in high school and college.

“I have seen this give a platform for the best and brightest to shine in some of the city’s poorest schools,” said Howell-Moroney, who volunteered with the society. “It gives a voice to these students that they can’t find elsewhere. I’m surprised they were so willing to just let this go.”

The voice Miller found through her years at debate now manifests itself in her poetry, such as her poem “Toward a Greater Memphis.”

“I used to just write what I felt,” she said. “But after I started debating, I realized my poetry could be a place where I could be a strong voice for my community and deliver what I was feeling backed up by facts and examples. Confidence. That’s the biggest thing debate gave me. What will happen to all those kids who don’t get the chance to discover confidence?”

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.