Photo courtesy of the Commercial Appeal.

Over the past year, Memphis City Schools has been touted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other education players for its efforts to improve teacher quality and turn around its dropout factories. Its superintendent, Dr. Kriner Cash, is even making waves with the district’s nascent initiative with the U.S. Department of Justice to stem juvenile crime and keep kids out of juvenile courts. But it may be the district’s status as a going concern that may end up garnering more attention for school reformers — especially those who want to want to upend the traditional system of district-based school operations.

This week, Memphis’ school commissioners are debating whether the district should hand back its charter to the state of Tennessee. Why? The ultimate reason why traditional public education will ultimately be overhauled: Scarce tax dollars. Memphis’ rival school district, Shelby County Schools (which covers all the suburban schools outside of Memphis), is attempting to grab more of those dollars by becoming a special school district covering the entire county. Given that Memphis collected $518 million in local property tax dollars in 2007-2008, while Shelby County collected just $179 million in the same period (and that Shelby County is the rare example of a suburban district far more dependent on state funding –45 percent of its $368 million in revenue in that period came from Tennessee’s coffers  —  than the inner-city), one can see why the smaller district is attempting the tax grab. Although the state didn’t approve the move this year, it could do so in 2011 thanks to a Republican-controlled legislature and governorship that could find the plan to their liking.

While the move in and of itself would not mean the end of Memphis schools, one of its school commissioners, Martavius Jones, argues that it will lead to fewer dollars for the district that can’t easily be recaptured through property tax increases. By surrendering its charter, Memphis could force Shelby County into a merger (and of course, attempt a tax grab of its own). Considering that the Memphis city government recently annexed a portion of suburban Shelby County for its own tax grab activities, a similar effort by the district wouldn’t be all that surprising.

Considering the opposition to the move from two of the five commissioners, the lack of a unified opinion one way or another from other local players, and the fact that it still must be approved by voters after being blessed by the school board, it’s hard to tell if the charter surrender is likely to happen. But there are other possibilities. What if Tennessee state officials finally decided to get rid of the bureaucracies within both districts as part of an effort to promote charter school expansion and school choice? Considering that the five-year graduation rates (based on 8th-grade enrollment) for Memphis and Shelby County are, respectively, 65 percent and 74 percent for the Classes of 2008, it isn’t as if either can justify their existence as providers of academic instruction. One could easily envision a system in which the state takes control of school funding altogether, using a merged Memphis-Shelby County district as an experimental model in which funding follows the students to any school option available. The district could either be just a pass-through entity or a provider of transportation services and buildings to school operators.

The role of running schools could be taken over by high-quality charter school operators such as KIPP and Green Dot (the latter of which can serve the county’s growing Latino population).The Church of God in Christ, the nation’s largest majority-black Protestant denomination that is headquartered in the Land of the Delta Blues, could also start its own schools and help spur other black churches to take on the role of improving school opportunities for the city’s poor kids long held by the local Catholic diocese (currently the third-largest school system after Memphis and Shelby County). Even PTAs, grassroots groups and parents already doing homeschooling could also become local school operators; they could team up together on shared services such as transportation, financial management, high-level math instruction and even arts classes. This, of course, is the Hollywood Model of Education in full.

All that said, of course, it will depend on some other factors to come into play. One would be to use political clout to block the state’s National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates from blocking such a move. The state would also have to alter its own laws  so that the very work rules and benefits policies that now burden Memphis and Shelby County (and have led to both districts spending, respectively, 30 cents and 22 cents on benefits for every dollar of teacher pay in 2007-2008 versus 24 cents and 18 cents a decade ago) won’t burden much-smaller operators. But depending on what happens, the politicking in Memphis may prove to be more interesting on the school reform front than a visit to Graceland.