Know Your ABCs

By Dan Conaway

THE ABCs OF PRE-K. If we are to pass the half-cent sales tax increase to fund prekindergarten for every child in Memphis, the newly appointed Memphis Pre-K Commission will need to learn their ABCs or get schooled by the voters again.

The commission appointments have checked all the right boxes – black and white, male and female, educator and preacher, philanthropist and capitalist – from the cool factor of Kirk Whalum, head of Stax Music Academy, to the ubiquitous Brad Martin, who’s appearing at more Memphis tables lately than barbecue.

But if they assume the weight of their collective accomplishments will sway the vote, they will fail this test.

If they are to convince a skeptical Memphis public that’s seen more school sleight of hand than the NCAA, they have to start at the very beginning – just like pre-K.

A is for advance.

“The price we pay for the transformation of public education buys the advancement of our culture, workforce, and quality of life.” So said Derrick Joyce, pre-K coordinator for Memphis City Schools, in last year’s annual report. We have exactly zero chance of advancing our city without giving all of our children the best chance to advance. Give the public facts. For example, from when they started until they finished, the 3,654 pre-K 4-year-olds in the system last year – kids with demonstrated risk for future school success – gained an average of 10 points on standard national tests, significantly raising their readiness in five critical developmental areas.

B is for believe.

“But,” as the question is often asked, “will they retain their edge?” You better believe it. And we better make sure the voters believe it. Research from our own Urban Child Institute shows the long and short-term benefits of pre-K in national study after study, statistic after statistic.

By age 27, almost three times as many who had pre-K vs. those who didn’t will own a home; twice as many will never have received government assistance. Those that didn’t have pre-K are 1.5 times more likely to be arrested as juveniles; 2.08 times more likely to be arrested for misdemeanors; and 2.14 times more likely to be arrested for felonies. By age 40, for those that didn’t have pre-K, the chances of being involved in violent crime, in drug crime – for being arrested more than five times – are all 50 percent greater than those who did have pre-K.

Here – by every measurement, tested through the third grade – pre-K students outperformed the students with no known pre-K experience. Student performance was clearly raised even more when pre-K and Shelby County Head Start were combined.

C is for codify.

Don’t promise. Guarantee. Make sure the ballot language assures the voters of exactly what this money is for and guarantees the percentage to pre-K. No abouts or approximates.


They won’t believe you otherwise. If you want to talk abouts, the city still owes the schools about $57 million.

I’m a Memphian, and Memphis deserves an honest report card for pre-K and an honest chance for our kids.

Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at