For the first time since the city of Memphis ceased funding schools after the historic merger of city and county districts, it’s looking into getting back into public education — by putting dollars into pre-K classrooms.

Several members of the City Council say they will introduce a resolution next week to support expanding pre-K in Memphis. The measure does not provide a funding stream for the multimillion-dollar proposal, but essentially commits to finding a way to come up with the money.

“We’re introducing a resolution Tuesday stating why we need to fund pre-K, why Memphis should be at the table,” said Councilman Kemp Conrad.

Last month, Conrad spoke about a potential hotel-motel tax increase to pay for free, need-based pre-K. On Wednesday, he said such a tax won’t be part of the resolution.

“That’s one option, but we want to hear more,” he told Chalkbeat. The resolution, he added, “is saying that we’re committing to figure out how to do this.”

Council members Patrice Robinson and Berlin Boyd are also on board with the proposal. If passed, the resolution would commit the council to securing at least $8 million to pay for about 1,000 pre-K seats that would be eliminated after a federal grant expires in 2019. Currently, about 7,420 of the city’s 4-year-olds attend a free pre-K class.

Approving the resolution would demonstrate a shift in thinking about the city’s willingness to invest in public education. The city has not directly contributed to Memphis classrooms since ceasing funding for Shelby County Schools following the 2013 merger.

The discussion also comes at a time of growing agreement among education, government and philanthropic leaders that both Memphis and the entire state of Tennessee will never be able to address its reading gaps without a major emphasis on early childhood education.

A 2017 billboard campaign, paid for by Stand for Children, highlighted frustration among city, county and school leaders over education funding in Memphis.
PHOTO CREDIT: Stand for Children

The city’s decision to stop funding local schools made Shelby County government the primary funder and sparked frequent complaints from county officials that the city isn’t carrying its weight. One commissioner, Terry Roland, has even compared the city to a “deadbeat dad.” (The county now contributes $3 million a year to pre-K classrooms.)

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who took office in 2016, has been a proponent of pre-K investments and spoke in favor of universal pre-K on the campaign trail.

Conrad and Robinson said their resolution provides a gateway to get the city back into the business of education.

“I was on the (school board) in 2003, and then we were looking into what we could do to support pre-K,” Robinson said. “It’s almost 2018, and we haven’t done anything, and children’s lives are being impacted daily. We’re not in the education business, but those children are still our constituents.”

Council members have been working closely with Seeding Success, the Memphis member of StriveTogether, a national initiative focusing on “cradle to career” education. The group is partnering with other local organizations to create an early childhood education plan for Memphis aimed at full funding for needs-based pre-K.

Seeding Success is most concerned about filling the gap that looms with the 2019 expiration of an $8 million federal grant. Executive Director Mark Sturgis said his organization is serving as the “quarterback” of local efforts to recruit and braid together funding to cover the loss — and even expand pre-K.

Seeding Success worked with Conrad on the possible hotel-motel tax but is open to other ideas.

“Come 2019, we don’t want to tell 1,000 4-year-olds that we don’t have space for them,” Sturgis said. “That’s priority No. 1. Priority No. 2  is filling the gap so all children who need a pre-K seat have one.”

That means that, besides the impending funding gap of $8 million, Seeding Success hopes to secure $8.6 million more to fund a thousand additional pre-K seats. Those investments would bring Shelby County’s pre-K reach to 8,500 children.

Seeding Success is also looking for philanthropic help.

“We’re all getting to a place where we can think more strategically about how county and city government invest in this opportunity, which will invest in their workforce development in the long run,” Sturgis said. “Philanthropy has been a driver behind our early childhood plan. … We might look to a system where philanthropy matches civic dollars.”

You can read the full proposal by Seeding Success below: