Three things we heard about educational equity during #MLK50

At a panel about education, Memphis Superintendent Dorsey Hopson (left) joined Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University (right), former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King, and Karen Harrell, vice president of early childhood services at Porter-Leath.

Five decades after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., segregation remains a major barrier to achievement for students of color. That was a key theme for education leaders who came to Memphis to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s death.

King was famously passionate about education, once saying, “To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”

As part of a series of events around “MLK50,” a panel on education was held Tuesday by the University of Memphis and the National Civil Rights Museum.

Memphis Superintendent Dorsey Hopson joined former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King, Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, and Karen Harrell, vice president of early childhood services at Porter-Leath, for the discussion.

Here are three things we heard about the state of schools in Memphis and beyond, 50 years after the death of King:

1. To really achieve educational equity, widespread change is needed. But it’s a hard sell.

Both John King and Hopson described school segregation as a major barrier to more equitable schools and a more just society.

PHOTO: EWA/Katherine Taylor
John King was the nation’s education chief under President Barack Obama.

“Resources follow white, middle class, and affluent kids,” King said. “That’s a reality of our society.”

In Memphis, Hopson said, school segregation was fueled again recently by the 2014 exodus of six suburban districts after a historic merger between the city and county school systems. (For a deep dive on segregation in Shelby County, go here).

“We have an interesting scenario in Memphis with the merger and demerger,” Hopson said. “It’s not a secret that these (suburban) districts left the poorer district that has more kids of color.”

But when asked if Shelby County had the political will to make integration happen, Hopson wasn’t optimistic.

“We see this throughout the country: If you’re intentional to integrate schools, it leads to better outcomes for all of those kids,” he said. “But we don’t have the appetite in Shelby County. It’s not just a race thing, it’s an economic thing, too…People don’t want to send their kids to school with poor, black kids.”

2. Early childhood education is at a “crossroads.”

King told the crowd that investment in early childhood education is growing across the nation, thanks to a willingness of business and communities to invest in it.

“There’s statistics now that show communities can get a significant return on their investment when it comes to early childhood,” he said. “But only if it’s high quality. If it’s not high quality, we’re seeing people throw up their hands and say they’ll take their money elsewhere … There’s real tension around getting folks to trust that we’re going to deliver on the quality promise.”

Memphis, too, is at a crossroads as nonprofits are pushing to raise the level of early childhood education. Harrell of Porter-Leath, the largest preschool provider in the city, said during the panel that high-quality centers exist, but they aren’t cheap.

“You have to budget to run high-quality centers,” Harrell said. “That’s what we’re talking about here — how do we step in and help lift up other childcare providers in the city? This is expensive work.”

3. Teachers have power, and they should be better recognized for it.

Each panelist was asked who the most influential teacher was in their life, and for King, it was a teacher whom he said saved his life after his parents died.

“When home was scary, unpredictable, and lonely, this classroom was safe, engaging, and a place I felt love and supported,” King said. “That’s the difference a teacher can make.”

But the value and relevance of teachers, in particular of teachers of color, has declined over the years, said Kimbrough of Dillard University, a historically black college.

“Teachers are on strike because they don’t feel valued,” Kimbrough said of recent teacher strikes across the country. “We need to radically rethink how we incentivize people wanting to become teachers, and teachers of color in particular.”

New leader

District chief Joris Ray named Memphis schools’ interim leader

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Joris Ray, center, was appointed interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

Joris Ray, who started his 22-year career as a teacher in Memphis schools, will be the interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

The school board voted 5-4 Tuesday evening to appoint Ray, who as a member of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet oversees the district’s academic operations and student support. An audience composed mostly of educators applauded the announcement.

“A lot of people call Dr. Ray, and he gets things done,” Hopson said at the meeting.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Dorsey Hopson and Joris Ray, right.

Ray could be at the helm of Tennessee’s largest district for anywhere from 8 months to 18 months, as the board looks to hire a permanent leader, Board Chair Shante Avant said. Hopson is leaving the 200-school, 111,600-student district after nearly six years; he will lead an education initiative at the health insurer Cigna, effective Jan. 8.

Hopson will still help Ray transition into his new role a few weeks after his resignation takes effect because of his current contract terms.

Ray, a graduate of Whitehaven High School, said he intends to apply for the permanent position.

“I’m about pushing things forward. No sense in looking back,” told reporters Tuesday, noting that his goal, as he gets started, is “to listen, to get out to various community groups and transition with the superintendent … but also I want to talk to teachers and I want to talk to students because oftentimes they’re left out of the education process.”

The other two nominees to serve as interim superintendent were Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance, and Carol Johnson, a former superintendent of Memphis schools.

Hopson commended both Lin Johnson and Ray as “truly my brothers in this work.” He also acknowledged the work Carol Johnson has done in recent years to train teachers in her role as director of New Leaders in Memphis.

Some school board members wanted to preclude the interim appointee from applying for the permanent post — especially if the interim selection was an in-district hire — but a resolution formalizing that position failed in a 6-3 vote.

“If it were me… I’d think twice about going up against that person to take the job. I really would,” Teresa Jones, a board member, said. But she said she wants to create an environment “where individuals feel where they can come forward and apply” for the superintendent job.

The appointment comes one day after Hopson presented a plan to combine 28 aging school buildings into 10 new ones. Ray said he will look to get community input before pursuing the plan while he is at the helm.

“We need to continue to unpack the plan,” Ray said after the meeting. “And I rely on the community to get their input. But most of all, it’s what’s best for students.”

There’s more from the meeting in this Twitter thread:

Movers and shakers

These Colorado lawmakers will shape education policy in 2019

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Colorado House of Representatives

When the Colorado General Assembly convenes in January, Democrats will control both chambers for the first time since 2014. That shift in the balance of power, along with a lot of turnover in both chambers, means new faces on the committees that will shape education policy.

The incoming committee chairs in both chambers  — state Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango and state Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora — are former teachers themselves and experienced lawmakers. One of the incoming members, representative-elect Bri Buentello of Pueblo, is currently a special education teacher. The ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, state Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, is also a former teacher and school superintendent. He’s the only Republican returning to the committee from the previous session.

In the House, Democrats now hold a three-seat majority on the committees responsible for deciding which bills will advance to a floor vote. In the Senate, Democrats have a one-vote advantage on most committees.

The new Democratic majorities open the possibility of advancing issues that once stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, like funding full-day kindergarten — a priority of incoming governor Jared Polis — and expanding access to mental health services in school. But these decisions will have to be made without major new revenue and in competition with other budget needs. Democrats may also have to grapple with disagreements among their own ranks on charter schools, teacher evaluations, and school choice, issues that have long enjoyed bipartisan consensus. 

But one newly appointed member of the Senate Education Committee won’t serve out his term. State Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, recently announced he’ll resign in January following accusations that he repeatedly used a women’s restroom in the state Capitol. State Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, has announced his intention to seek the vacancy and could take Kagan’s place on the education committee.

The other new Democrat on the Senate committee, Tammy Story, has a long record as an education advocate in Jefferson County. She worked to recall school board members there that supported charters and performance-based teacher pay.

Senator-elect Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is a former member of the State Board of Education and served on the House Education Committee. State Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, the ranking Republican on the committee, is the former chair.

House Education Committee:


Chair: Rep. Barbara McLachlan, Durango

Vice-Chair, rep.-elect Bri Buentello, Pueblo

Rep. Janet Buckner, Aurora

Rep. James Coleman, Denver

Rep.-elect Lisa Cutter, Jefferson County

Rep. Tony Exum Sr., Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Julie McCluskie, Dillon

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, Commerce City


Ranking member: Rep. Jim Wilson, Salida

Rep.-elect Mark Baisley, Roxborough Park

Rep.-elect Tim Geitner, Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Colin Larson, Ken Caryl

Rep. Kim Ransom, Littleton

Senate Education Committee:


Chair: Nancy Todd, Aurora

Vice-Chair: sen.-elect Tammy Story, Conifer

Sen. Daniel Kagan, Cherry Hills Village


Ranking member: Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs

Sen.-elect Paul Lundeen, Monument