‘Don’t hurt my children’: Memphis superintendent begs state lawmakers to reject bill threatening to cut funds if all-virtual learning continues

Superintendent Joris Ray stands in front of a school sign with a face mask in his hand with one of Shelby County Schools’ logos.
Superintendent Joris Ray said state lawmakers are unfairly criticizing the district’s approach to virtual learning and do not understand the district’s needs. (Daily Memphian file)

Superintendent Joris Ray posted a video early Friday urging state legislators to vote against a bill that could “defund public education” if Shelby County Schools classrooms remain closed. 

“As you’re making decisions on behalf of students in Shelby County, please don’t hurt my children,” he said in his nearly three-minute video. “I don’t think it is intentional, but the decisions of grown-ups show children their true colors. Because when you advocate for in-person learning against the decision of a duly elected school board, you abridge the very essence of local control and run the risk of hurting my children.”

The video message comes on the last scheduled day of the Tennessee legislature’s special session on education, where lawmakers have passed bills to hold  back third graders struggling to read, hold  teachers harmless for this year’s standardized test results, and authorize new summer and after-school programs to help students catch up after the pandemic’s historic disruption to education.

Friday’s meetings could include a bill filed earlier this week that would give the state power to “withhold a portion or all” funding if a district does not provide an in-person learning option to kindergarten-eighth graders for at least 70 days this school year. If not discussed Friday, lawmakers could still discuss the bill when the regular legislative session begins next week. 

The state’s largest two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, have not met that requirement and would need to reopen buildings quickly and stay open the rest of the year or risk losing state money, which makes up about half of each district’s funding.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, the Franklin Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said he doesn’t believe the districts are following state guidance to reopen buildings.

“We absolutely have every right to step in if we feel like local districts are not doing what’s in the best interest of kids,” he said. 

But Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat from Nashville, called the bill “silly, counterproductive, and likely illegal.”

“Nothing about cutting off funding is going to help a single student in the affected areas,” Yarbro said. “Even if the administration is right on its theory, punishing the students is no way to operate.”

Ray said state lawmakers supporting the bill are unfairly criticizing the virtual instruction Shelby County Schools teachers have been giving since August. The Memphis district requires live online lessons every day for most of the school day rather than mostly assigning work for students to work on independently like some other school systems. 

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“When you make decisions without visiting or talking or listening, you run the risk of hurting my children,” he said. 

Adrienne Battle, the director of the Nashville district, said the bill would be “terrible public policy” and could threaten mass layoffs.

“Any proposal to take funding away from students... does nothing to address any real learning challenges or gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, nor does it do anything to create a safer working or learning environment by slowing or stopping the spread of the coronavirus,” she said in a statement this week. 

Miska Clay Bibbs, the school board chairwoman for the Memphis district, said the state should figure out how to work with the districts rather than against them. 

“How can you say you’re supporting a community by threatening to take away from them?” she said. “If anything, the response should be ‘Let me come down and get in the trenches with you to understand what’s happening so I can better support you.’”

Chalkbeat’s senior statehouse correspondent Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.

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The district also plans to merge its Simon Youth Academy with another alternative education program at Arsenal Technical High School.

The board of education has not approved a new charter school since 2018.

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The directive could mark a significant shift in a system where principals have traditionally had wide latitude to manage their own hiring.