Breakaway districts

Memphis-Shelby County spotlighted in national report on school district secession

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

The 2014 exodus of six suburban towns from the newly consolidated Memphis school system is one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class, says a new report.

The Shelby County towns are among 47 that have seceded from large school districts nationally since 2000. Another nine, including the town of Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn., are actively pursuing separation, according to the report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality.

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.

After the 2014 pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve worked to build their school systems from the ground up.

The report says Tennessee’s law is among the most permissive of the 30 states that allow some communities to secede from larger school districts. It allows a municipality with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

PHOTO: EdBuild
States that don’t prohibit secession from school districts are shaded in blue.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities. This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “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.”

The Shelby County pullout is known in Memphis as the “de-merger,” which happened one year after the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the suburban county district known as Legacy Shelby County Schools. The massive changes occurred as a result of a series of chess moves that began in 2010 after voters elected a Republican supermajority in Tennessee for the first time in history.

Under the new political climate, Shelby County’s mostly white and more affluent suburbs sought to establish a special school district that could have stopped countywide funding from flowing to the mostly black and lower income Memphis district. In a preemptive strike, the city’s school board surrendered its charter and Memphians voted soon after to consolidate the city and county districts. The suburbs — frustrated over becoming a partner in a consolidated school system they didn’t vote for — soon convinced the legislature to change a state law allowing them to break away and form their own districts, which they did.

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.”

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.

"These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result."Rebecca Sibilia, CEO, EdBuild

“What we’re talking about here is the notion of people pulling out of a tax base that’s for the public good,” Sibilia said. “That’s akin to saying you’re not going to pay taxes for a library because you’re not going to use it. … You can see this as racially motivated, but we found it was motivated much more by socioeconomics.”

The report asserts that funding new smaller districts is inefficient and wasteful.

The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on the larger districts (of 25,000 to 49,999 students), according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more per pupil on administrative costs.

Under Tennessee’s current law, Sibilia believes the Shelby County de-merger is only the first of more secessions to come. She notes that Tennessee’s law is similar to one in Alabama, where a fourth of the nation’s secessions have occurred. Already in Chattanooga, residents of Signal Mountain are in their second year of studying whether to leave the Hamilton County Department of Education.

“There’s a direct link between very permissive policies and the number of communities that take advantage of them,” Sibilia said. “These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result.”

Editor’s note: Details about the merger-demerger have been added to this version of the story.

5 step plan

If Carranza wants to take on screening in New York City, here are 5 things he could do

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A high-school choice fair in Brooklyn in 2016.

Tracking is pervasive in New York City from kindergarten through high school, with 28 percent of all schools sorting students based on grades, test scores and other factors.

That’s why Chancellor Richard Carranza’s comment that screening is “antithetical” to the mission of public schools was so surprising. But the question is, what can he do to change the system?

Any action will be contentious and difficult. On the one hand, advocates argue that screening creates divisions along racial and socioeconomic lines. However, others say it has produced some of the most popular, even iconic schools in the city and helps keep middle class families in the public school system.

If Carranza is serious about tackling problems with screening, here’s a list of five areas he could tackle.

1.) Eliminate District 2 priority

New York City’s high school admissions process is based on the idea that students can apply to any school in the city, regardless of their zip codes. But one of the wealthiest school districts in the city has essentially cordoned off certain schools for students who live within the district’s boundaries

District 2, which encompasses the Upper East Side and downtown Manhattan, is home to some of the most popular high schools in the city, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Baruch College Campus High School and N.Y.C. Lab School for Collaborative Studies.

These schools have near-perfect graduation rates, and thousands of students rank them as one of their top 12 schools each year. However, they are so competitive it is nearly impossible for students outside of the district to snag a seat.

Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy, said it’s heartbreaking to tell students that the rules effectively prevent them from attending a great school.

“I have to sit with kids in the Bronx who are more than qualified for Eleanor Roosevelt and I have to tell them, ‘Sorry, you can’t get into that school. It’s impossible,’” Frumkin said.

These schools enroll a disproportionately low share of black and Hispanic students. For instance, 15.5 percent of Eleanor Roosevelt’s student body is comprised of black and Hispanic students. Citywide, about 67 percent of students are black and Hispanic.

2.) Change the admissions rules at five specialized high schools

At the red-hot center of this fight are eight elite high schools that admit students based on a single test. These schools have drawn intense scrutiny after only about 10 percent of admissions offers went to black and Hispanic students this year.

The city’s official position has long been that admissions at specialized high schools are codified in state law. But in fact, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School are written into state law. Experts say the city could change admissions at the remaining five schools with a vote from the city’s school oversight board.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said he will “revisit” the subject. Carranza has also seemed receptive to changes, saying that he is not in favor of single-test admissions.

Without a single test, the city could pick new admissions methods that would likely lead to a more diverse student body. They could select the top-performing students at middle schools across the city, or admit students based on factors such as grades and attendance.

3.) Create one common application for all screened schools

Since New York City’s screened schools have latitude to craft their own admissions criteria, students may have to submit test scores, grades, examples of their work, and attendance records. Or they may have to sit for tests at the schools, interviews, write essays, or complete artistic auditions.

The set of requirements is dizzying and disadvantages students without the time and savvy to  navigate the system. Those learning English might find it difficult to navigate school websites. The High School Directory, a large book of school options intended to help students sort through admissions requirements, has historically left out information. Some of the open houses that explain this information are nearly impossible to get into and affluent families can pay for a service that tells them when to be near a computer to sign up.

Additionally, fulfilling some of these requirements is easier for families preparing years in advance. For instance, one of the city’s most prestigious schools, Beacon High School, asks students to submit a sample of their work. However, that is only possible if students know in advance to save their best work. Many parents from more affluent areas of the city start preparing for high school admissions early — sometimes in elementary school.

If the city instituted one, centralized set of admissions requirements for screened schools, the process would be simpler to navigate. That may help students from low-income backgrounds who have difficulty sorting through the process now.

City officials are aware that applying to high school can be difficult for families. Officials have tried to tackle the problem by providing more information to students and parents. For instance, they launched a tool that helps students search information about schools and provide more translated copies of the High School Directory. They also promised to improve access to open houses.

4.) Reduce the share of screened schools throughout the system

Advocates who believe any screening mechanisms, including test scores, attendance rates, or auditions, are inherently biased, say the city should either eliminate screening or seriously reduce the share of schools allowed to pick their students.

Nearly a third of high schools in New York City today have some screen for academic success or artistic talent — but it wasn’t always that way. During Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, the share of screened schools shot up around the city. In 2002, only 15.8 percent of school programs screened students for academic success. By 2009, that share had increased to 28.4 percent. (Some schools have multiple programs.)

Further sorting takes place far before high school. When students are as young as four they can sit for a Gifted & Talented test. These G&T programs are starkly segregated by race and class. Additionally, students are screened in one quarter of middle schools.

Matt Gonzales, who supports school integration work through the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said he believes middle schools screens should be eliminated. “Especially for 9 and 10-year olds, it’s kind of ridiculous to put kids through this process,” Gonzales said. “We’re actually just screening for families and not kids.”

City officials said they are trying to eliminate the use of screens when possible, but so far have not set a target for reducing the share of screened schools in the city.

5.) Require that screened schools set aside seats for students from disadvantaged backgrounds

Some of the city’s Gifted & Talented programs and Bard High School in Queens are already prioritizing admissions for some students who qualify for free-or-reduced-price lunch, which is often used as a proxy for poverty. The city could expand the number of schools doing the same.

Gonzales said it would make sense to start with a set aside program. Ultimately, he would want to see some type of “controlled choice” formula that takes a student’s background into account when assigning a school. (In this scenario, the formula could include both academic success and socioeconomic status.) But in the meantime, it might make sense to start smaller, he said.

“Whatever we do is going to have to be iterative,” Gonzales said. “Starting off with some priority system or set aside system, I think that would actually be a very good, methodical way to start tinkering with the way we do admissions.”

sorting the students

‘Why are we screening children? I don’t get that’: Chancellor Carranza offers harsh critique of NYC school admissions

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Chancellor Richard Carranza

New York City’s schools chief expressed a fundamental critique of the school system on Wednesday, arguing that sorting students by ability is “antithetical” to public education.

“I think the very fact that we’re talking about screening is an issue,” Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said at a press conference in the Bronx. “Why are we screening kids in a public school system? That is, to me, antithetical to what I think we all want for our kids.”

A large chunk of the school system Carranza is running operates exactly that way. In New York City, about one quarter of middle schools and one third of high schools “screen” students which means they select for admission based on factors like test scores, interviews, attendance, grades, or artistic talent. Several renowned high schools — the “specialized” schools that include Stuyvesant and Bronx Science — only admit top scorers on an entrance exam.

Carranza’s comments reflect his interest in integrating schools, as academic sorting also means that black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in many of the city’s selective schools. They also may signal that he’s on a collision course with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has not exhibited much enthusiasm for sweeping changes to the city’s schools — and with affluent city parents who see selective schools as a condition of their participation in public school system.

The education department did not say Wednesday whether Carranza planned to introduce new policies to reduce the number of schools screening students. Spokeswoman Toya Holness said he would continue to support ongoing work with superintendents to promote alternative admissions methods.

“As Chancellor Carranza has said, we are committed to equity and excellence for all students in New York City and central to that work is making the admissions process fairer for families,” she said.

Screened schools proliferated under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, though a small number have existed for decades. According to data compiled by Sean Corcoran of NYU Steinhardt, less than 16 percent of school programs screened students for academics in 2002; by 2009, it was more than 28 percent.

Proponents say those schools allow top students to access a more rigorous curriculum than is possible in a school with students of mixed ability, and they encourage wealthier families to stay in the public school system — and bring their political and financial capital along with them.

But a Chalkbeat analysis in 2016 detailed how screening has led to extreme academic sorting. Over half of the students who took and passed the state eighth-grade math exam in 2015 were clustered in less than 8 percent of city high schools. Meanwhile, nearly 165 of the city’s roughly 440 high schools had five or fewer ninth-graders who took and passed the state math test.

This, in turn, contributes to segregation along racial and socioeconomic lines. Low-income students of color are less likely to earn passing scores on state tests and may have more challenges navigating the city complicated admissions rules. The New York Times published an analysis in 2017 that shows as admissions methods get more competitive, schools become increasingly white and Asian.

When asked about the city’s intense academic sorting a few weeks into his tenure, Carranza said he wanted to tackle the problem.

“That is not acceptable,” he said during an interview with Chalkbeat. “And as I wrap my head around the data, those are conversations that I’m looking forward to having with my colleagues.”

Mayor de Blasio was reluctant to make more than incremental changes to those systems in his first term. Officials eliminated an admissions method that benefited students who could attend open houses and added a “blind ranking” element to some admissions systems to increase fairness.

But on Wednesday, de Blasio appeared to back Carranza, who is in his second month on the job.

“We’re certainly going to look at the screened schools because that’s something that deserves to be evaluated,” de Blasio said.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.