The news that Carver High School in South Memphis and at least four other Memphis high schools are marked for closure by the so-called Unified School Board of the Shelby County Schools is just the latest indication of why Memphis should pull out of the “unified” schools and reconstitute their city school district instead.
The benefits that would accrue to having a single, county-wide school system were effectively lost as soon as a state law change made it possible for the suburban municipalities to form their own school districts. And although the county’s new school board has challenged the legality of the new municipal districts, they are fighting a losing battle. Money and white privilege always get their way in America, if not today, then tomorrow. And perhaps worst of all, those who objected to the unified district and support municipal schools for the suburbs were allowed to vote for the new “unified” school board and have representation on it. In other words, decisions about the education of largely Black children in Memphis are being made by white suburban board members whose own children will never enter a Shelby County School.
What is at stake here is far more than just schools. Along with churches, schools are the anchors of neighborhoods. They are the institutions that have helped shape communities like Orange Mound or Riverview for several generations, and it is basically impossible for suburban residents to understand the deep attachment that these areas have to their schools. Closing them will hasten the deterioration and decline of neighborhoods, and will also increase unrest in the schools that remain open, as children from schools with traditional rivalries are suddenly forced together into one building. Many jobs, both in teaching and support staff will be lost. Children will lose opportunities to play an instrument, sing in a choir, or participate in competitive athletics.
There is something that Memphis residents can do. They can demand that no schools be closed without the consent of the students and parents affected, and plan to organize a city-wide student boycott if the board goes ahead with the closings. But more to the point, Memphis residents need to ask Mayor Wharton and the city council to take steps to enable Memphis to withdraw from the Shelby County Schools. There is no point in pursuing “unification” with people who have made it plain that they wish to be separate. At least a municipal school district in Memphis would be under the control of a board elected by Memphis residents alone, and that is what is needed.