VOL. 11 | NO. 2 | Saturday, January 13, 2018
Shelby County Prekindergarten Push Remains in General Terms for Now
By Bill Dries
Nearly six years after voters defeated two ballot questions in as many years that would have provided a tax revenue steam for universal prekindergarten, the pre-K quest is back.
The return of a coordinated civic and political push for pre-K comes about five years after a combination of state and federal funding as well as a shift of county government’s early childhood Head Start contract to Shelby County Schools.
The shift has increased access to prekindergarten and SCS has contracted with Porter-Leath and other agencies to provide it.
The latest civic and political push to make high-quality prekindergarten accessible to all Memphis children comes as local leaders are working out how to fund a pre-K effort before an $8 million federal grant runs out in 2019. (Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)
Memphis City Council members approved a resolution in December that sets the stage for a more specific path to the funding.
The resolution says the council and Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration “intends between now and April 2018, prior to the passage of the fiscal year 2019 city budget, to identify a material investment in funding for pre-K.”
It also says the council’s goal is “to leverage its investment to generate such a return in matching funds from the county, the school board and the private community so as to fully fund the $40 million needed for the Shelby County Early Childhood Education Plan.”
That plan’s goal is high-quality prekindergarten access for all children in Memphis.
“This is a fine and temporary solution,” council chairman Berlin Boyd said at the first of two city council discussions about the resolution before its Dec. 19 approval.
An $8 million federal grant that funds 1,000 prekindergarten seats in Memphis is set to end in 2019, but while the urgency is specific, leaders of the new effort aren’t ready to say how they want to seek the funding.
Councilman Kemp Conrad said the commitment from a unanimous City Council should come first. And he said the private funding commitments hinge on embracing the general goal without funding sources identified.
But some council members argued the pre-K push must be part of a larger reordering of local education priorities, though they were quick to say they support pre-K expansion in general.
“My biggest concern … is the continuity of education once they get into the K-3 system,” said councilman Worth Morgan. “More than just a promise or scout’s honor type thing, we need a real commitment from Shelby County Schools that these kids – if they come through our high-quality pre-K – that they are not regressing. Or I think the term is ‘fade out’ – that they don’t experience a fade-out from the gains they had in pre-K.”
Conrad, however, argued that efforts to nail down a K-12 uplift as the structure for growing and sustaining prekindergarten access should not hold up the pre-K push.
“We can’t let perfect get in the way of good,” he said. “I think the school system is doing a great job.”
Councilman Bill Morrison, who is an educator, agreed with Morgan.
“I think at some point we’ve put the cart before the horse,” he said, calling for more coordination with SCS. “If the city is going to get back into the education business, I think it needs to be a very robust conversation.”
The reprioritization of education beyond pre-K closely follows a desire by some council members to see the city return to funding public education in a way it hasn’t since the council reduced city funding of Memphis City Schools in 2008.
The school system sued and won, though the settlement payments from the city for the lost funding would come after the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools.
The merger ended the city’s obligation to provide any direct required and sustained funding to the merged system. That continued with the demerger that followed a year later.
Councilman Martavius Jones – who, along with councilwoman Patrice Robinson, was on the Memphis City Schools board at the time – argues the merger and the failed attempt at single local government-sourced funding that preceded the merger helped defeat the proposed increases to the city sales tax rate and then the county sales tax rate for pre-K in 2012 and 2013.
“We had a lot of things going on in the background,” he said as he called for Shelby County commissioners to join the council in supporting some kind of countywide revenue stream.
“If we said to this community the council unanimously supports this and the commission says we unanimously support this … we don’t have a lot of the distractions about having this as a referendum item.”
His quarrel is over where the money for prekindergarten comes from – the city or the county.
Robinson said there is time to be worked that out and that it shouldn’t distract from the push toward the general pre-K goal.
“You may not agree on where it comes from or how you make that happen, but we have to step up to the plate and do something,” she said. “While the adults are fighting about money and who is going to pay for it our children are suffering.”
The move toward a general commitment and then finding a funding stream or streams has Strickland’s backing as well.