by Montee Lopez and Karanja A. Ajanaku
After starting out in the Catholic school system, now-City Councilmember Patrice Robinson encountered some learning challenges. She was put into Memphis City Schools, where a teacher “invested” in her, creating a memory Robinson recalled while touting the value of funding pre-K education last Saturday.
Robinson, a former Memphis City Schools board member, joined Mayor Jim Strickland as he announced during a rare Saturday media conference at City Hall that the city of Memphis is committing $6 million to an expansion of pre-kindergarten.
Universal, needs-based pre-K is needed, “so that every child has a better opportunity to read… an opportunity to take advantage of the momentum our city is offering. So that every child gets a level shot at a better outcome for their life.”
The $6 million would be a combination of funds from expiring tax incentives and directing the equivalent of one cent of property tax revenue $1.2 million for a pre-K fund.
The price tag to fully fund needs-based pre-K in Shelby County is put at $16 million. Shelby County Schools (SCS) offers about 7,000 pre-kindergarten seats. To have enough seats for every child in need would require about 8,500 seats. But a major federal grant is expiring after next year. The city’s funding would make up the difference and add some seats, but will still leave a gap.
Strickland emphasized that a team effort is underway to address the pre-K need. He singled out the Memphis City Council, Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr. and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, SCS Supt. Dorsey Hopson, the city’s chief operating officer, Doug McGowen, and Seeding Success, a partnership the pursues educational outcomes for children.
“The unique thing about this funding mechanism is that we are not raising our property taxes,” said Memphis City Council Chairman Berlin Boyd. “We are understanding and finding solutions within city government…to help support this overwhelming need in our city.”
Referencing talk of companies not locating here because of a skill-sets deficit, Boyd said, “We are saying that we are getting serious about finding a way to improve our city’s overall educational needs.”
Robinson said funding pre-k is critical to “the fabric of our children.” Drawing upon her experiences with education challenges as a child, she said, “Patrice Robinson could have been a statistic…because I could not read at the third-grade level in the third grade. …
“But a teacher and a community supported me, as well as my parents, to make sure that I got what I needed. We need this whole community to rally together…and make sure that I children get in these programs …”
Luttrell observed that Shelby County will elect a new mayor and half of the board of commissioners. The county provides about $3 million annually for pre-K funding, with Luttrell saying he would suggest sustaining the funding to the incoming elected officials. “We have some work to do…the chances are pretty good of sustaining support…”
Hopson piggybacked on Councilman Kemp Conrad’s comment regarding funding pre-K being more than just an education strategy.
“This is also a poverty strategy,” he said. “What that 45 percent of all kids living in poverty in Memphis looks like to us is that 40,000 of our kids live in households where the income is less than $10,000 a year and that just creates a number of challenges for our students and quite frankly for our families. …There is such a strong correlation between kids being kindergarten ready and reading on grade level at the third grade.
“When you have this huge number of kids in poverty a lot of them don’t get the basic training that they need in the homes as five and six year olds,” he said. “They show up to school and they don’t … have letter, word, color recognition… What pre-K does is give them a firm foundation to stand on when they go to kindergarten.”
SCS has doubled the number of available pre-K seats since Memphis City Schools merged with the county district in 2013, Hopson said.
Burgess noted the County Commission’s ongoing support of education including funding pre-K. While pleased with Saturday’s announcement and noting that both mayors were voicing support for truly funding pre-K, Burgess said it was important to keep the momentum rolling regarding funding universal pre-K.
“You don’t want to start a program and end in the middle,” he said.
(This story includes information reported by the Associated Press.)