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Memphis Shelby County Schools: Five Issues to Watch Closely in 2024.

No one can say the 2023 calendar year was boring for leaders, teachers, and students of Memphis Shelby County Schools.  The year, as usual, was filled with excitement and controversy.  

From a botched superintendent search process to news of an after-school Satan Club opening in one of its schools, there was no shortage of controversial issues to wrap your mind around in 2023.  

While multiple issues made for an interesting year, there were five, in particular, that we will be keeping a close eye on in 2024.  

The stakes couldn’t be higher as these issues will have massive implications for the future of Memphis Shelby County Schools students, families, and employees going forward.

Budget Deficit

First, Memphis Shelby County Schools is grappling with a massive budget deficit of $150 million, primarily due to the cessation of federal pandemic relief funding.  

School systems all across the nation have been bracing for what some describe as a “fiscal cliff” – or the discontinuation of funds from federal aid programs that have provided billions of dollars over the past few years to support staff additions, raises and bonuses, construction projects, and tutoring programs.  

District leaders are taking a hard look at which programs and positions they can afford to trim without sacrificing or impeding academic progress.  There was a proposal on the table to eliminate up to 675 jobs along with an assortment of programming cuts that are expected to address only about half the projected deficit. 

Whatever cuts are implemented, they will have significant implications on school and district operations going forward.  

After-School Satan Clubs

You’ve probably read recently about an organization called the Satanic Temple and their interest in starting an After-School Satan Club in one of the district’s elementary schools.  When the news broke a several weeks ago that Chimney Rock Elementary School would be hosting an after-school club called the “After-School Satan Club,” I was shocked. The news of their intent prompted immediate concerns among parents, school administrators, and the broader faith community.

I never thought in a million years I would see a satanic organization openly and brazenly try to set up shop in an elementary school building with the intent of indoctrinating elementary school children with satanic beliefs disguised as fun and wholesome educational activities. 

From a legal perspective, little can be done to prevent this organization from moving forward with its plans, they are already having sessions after school. Still, community members and district officials must closely monitor this organization’s activities and do what they can to prevent it from expanding to other schools.  

School Vouchers in Tennessee 

Thirdly, the push to expand school vouchers nationwide is gaining momentum.  

Here In Tennessee, vouchers are available only to students zoned to attend a public school in Memphis-Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Hamilton County Schools, or a school in the Achievement School District (ASD). 

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, however, wants to expand the program beyond just those three school districts by offering public money for private schooling statewide.

Last year, the Governor introduced the Tennessee Education Freedom Scholarship Act, which could allow students in Tennessee to attend any school, private or public, of their choosing. The Governor’s proposal would provide scholarships next school year, worth about $7,000 each, to 20,000 students.  

The Governor’s new proposal would make choice a reality for every Tennessee family and child. The scholarships could be used at any private school and for most home school programs as well. The plan still has to be approved by the state legislature. Tennessee would be the ninth state in the U.S. to pass such legislation.  

There is fierce opposition to the governor’s plan, but it is important to note that the potential benefits and drawbacks of voucher programs are still being debated and researched. 

Letter Grades for Schools

Fourth, toward the end of last year, the Tennessee State Department of Education issued letter grades for public schools in Tennessee.  

This is the first year Tennessee has used the letter-grade system, which was passed into law in 2016 but is just now being implemented.

The grading system, of course, has been very controversial.  Critics argue the system relies too heavily on standardized test scores, potentially overlooking broader measures of school success and neglecting the needs of disadvantaged students.

Others claim the grading system oversimplifies complex data and can stigmatize schools with lower grades.  Concerns have also been raised about the fairness of comparing schools with vastly different student demographics and challenges.

Despite the criticisms, the letter grade system will remain a prominent feature of Tennessee’s education landscape going forward. It’s important to be aware of its limitations and consider it alongside other factors when evaluating schools.

A New Superintendent

Lastly, and most important, is the district’s search for a new superintendent.  The search process has been complex and multifaceted, with both positive and negative aspects for sure.  The initial selection process was bogged down with controversy.  

However, following the initial hiccups, the board adopted a revised timeline and has largely stuck to it, demonstrating a commitment to a thorough and efficient search.

The new process seems to be moving along smoothly and is headed into its final stages, with three finalists awaiting the school board’s final decision.  The process included significant community input, using forums, surveys, and focus groups to gather feedback on desired qualities and priorities for the new superintendent.

Kudos to Interim Superintendent Toni Williams and her team; they have done a pretty good job leading the school system during this extended transitional phase.   

So, as you can see, there is much to look forward to as we move into the new calendar year.  We will closely monitor these five issues as we navigate the next 12 months of 2024.

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