- Race, Economics, and the Politics of Educational Change: The Dynamics of School District Consolidation in Shelby County, Tennessee ed. by John M. Amis and Paul M. Wright
At first glance, this edited volume might be mistaken for a case study of school consolidation. Although that would be an important contribution, it would sell this book short, as it reveals much more than the mechanics of a merger. As the title implies, this collection is a multidisciplinary study of the dynamics that led to consolidation in a southern state amid sweeping political and geographic changes in 2010.
Prior to 2010, two entities controlled the schools of Shelby County, Tennessee: the Shelby County Schools (SCS) district and Memphis City Schools (MCS). When the Republican Party gained control of the state's senate, house, and governorship, the leaders of SCS began to discuss plans for the district to be granted "special school district" status and to separate from MCS. Fearing that this separation would mean that MCS would no longer have access to the tax base generated by the wealthier suburban district, the MCS board voted 5-4 to [End Page 757] surrender its charter. In doing so, the two districts effectively merged into what the authors refer to as "the largest school district consolidation in the history of the United States" (p. 2).
The authors of the nine chapters that make up the volume have approached this development through the lenses of historical, sociological, political, legal, institutional, urban planning, media studies, and educational analyses. The volume draws on both qualitative and quantitative data to demonstrate voting patterns and the demographics of Shelby County and Memphis. The themes that emerge include the response to desegregation due to the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which inspired a white flight that bolstered the enrollment and majority-white student body of SCS. While SCS was predominantly wealthier and white, the students who attended MCS were black and poor. Two chapters in particular focus on inequality and the disparity of achievement between MCS and SCS. Daniel Kiel focuses on the "fate-tying" legal strategy as an ineffective means to remedy inequality (p. 60). According to this strategy, by tying the fates of African American and white students together by attending an integrated school, both will benefit. Wanda Rushing presents an interesting discussion of the "durable inequality" of Memphis and how the schools contributed to—and sustained—it (chap. 3).
It is inevitable that the reader will find some repetition or "some degree of overlap" in the content of the book, as the chapters both bolster each other and recapitulate central themes (p. 11). The chapter "Quality and Equity in Education" by Paul M. Wright and Jenn M. Jacobs broadens the context to examine how "schooling as a social institution not only reflects, but also often propagates, social inequalities" (p. 213). This sobering chapter places educational policy at the forefront of the durable inequality argument advanced by Rushing and uses Memphis as a template for understanding how and why consolidation—often touted as a means of greater efficiency—has most often preserved the status quo of majority-minority communities. Although the Unified Shelby County Schools (USCS) district still exists, the more affluent suburbs have managed to further distance themselves from the lower-performing MCS. After a period of transition, six municipal school districts were formed that splintered away from the USCS in July 2014.
In the concluding chapter, coeditors Wright and John M. Amis refer to the situation as a cautionary tale. They use Lisa Delpit's phrase "'other people's children'" to illustrate that the dilemma went far beyond a question of school funding to deeply embedded issues of race and class that have been Shelby County's historical legacy (p. 248). The chapter by Wright and Jacobs, however, points out that despite the self-interest, politics, fear (particularly of busing), and socioeconomic factors, the...