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Tennessee Lawmakers Lift Ban On Municipal Schools

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If the governor does not veto a bill passed Monday, then the suburbs outside of Memphis will be able to restart a process to open municipal schools which they originally began in 2012. Last August, all six suburbs passed referendums to open their own municipal school districts, only to have those referendums voided by U.S. District Judge Samuel "Hardy" Mays. The new legislation will allow each suburb to hold another referendum on whether or not they want to open municipal schools. Suburban leaders have said their goal is to have their own separate school districts up and running in time for the 2014-2015 school year.

State law requires any town that opens its own school district to also fund that district with a fifteen-cent increase on the property tax, or an identical amount of money raised some other way. All six of the suburbs outside of Memphis passed a half-cent sales tax increase at the same time they passed referendums to open municipal schools. Those sales tax increases were not struck down by Mays. The suburbs have been collecting the money since August and plan to use it to fund separate school districts that will open next year.   

As five of the six Shelby County suburban mayors watched from the gallery yesterday, the Tennessee House passed a bill that would lift a statewide ban on new municipal school districts. Later that day the state Senate also passed the measure and it is headed to the governor’s desk.

Mays struck down a law that the Tennessee Legislature passed last session that allowed the formation of municipal school districts in Shelby County. “This law is different than the one that the judge ruled on because it does not apply just to Memphis and Shelby County. It lifts the statewide ban,” explained Senior Reporter for the Memphis Daily News Bill Dries. “It is clearly something that affects the entire state even though its purpose is to specifically allow the municipal school districts here in Shelby County.”

Last year, when the state Legislature debated a similar bill, many lawmakers worried that municipal school districts would also open in their counties. “And they quite frankly did not want that,” said Dries, who covered the debate last year.

“In other parts of the state you have a large county school system and you don’t have what you had here—that is a large city in the county that has its own school system,” Dries explained. “The concern in other parts of the state is that that large county school system that provides the education for the entire county, even if it [the county] has other cities, that their funding will be diluted and that these smaller school systems will spring up all over the county.”

That dissent was largely absent from the debate surrounding this year’s bill. “The backers of [this year’s] legislation really framed it as part and parcel of larger education reforms taking place in the state. They said, ‘Look, we have charter schools, we have an Achievement School District,'” recounted Dries. “‘So why shouldn’t we have the ability to open municipal schools?’”

As of yet there aren’t any concerted efforts to open municipal schools districts in Tennessee anywhere outside of Shelby County. “I think the jury is still out on whether this is a good idea or not for other places,” said Dries. “Memphis is kind of ground zero for all of these [education] reforms and this move to municipal school districts, I think, is no different.” 

I love living in Memphis, but I'm not from the city. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I spent many hours at a highly tender age listening to NPR as my parents crisscrossed that city in their car, running errands. I don't amuse myself by musing about the purity of destiny, but I have seriously wondered how different my life would be if my parents preferred classic rock instead of Car Talk.