Pre-K advocates pursue small strategies toward big goal

A coalition of pre-K advocates are moving forward with a collection of small strategies that they hope will result in every child being prepared to start kindergarten.  They are regrouping after losing a second referendum in November to fund universal pre-K with an increased sales tax.

“We have to be pursuing multiple strategies at the same time,” said Kathy Buckman Gibson, one of the leaders of the effort at the Chamber of Commerce. “Putting all our eggs in one basket is not going to move the basket sufficiently and as quickly as we feel we need to.”

Advocates contend that only 30 percent of students currently enter kindergarten are prepared for school and universal pre-K would fix that.  But the referendum to fund pre-K last November lost, in part due to criticisms that a sales tax disproportionately falls on the poor and that the revenues might be used to lower the property taxes of the rich.

Pre-K advocates at the non-profit People First and the Memphis Chamber of Commerce brought in stakeholders from across the city a little more than a month ago to discuss their next steps. The meeting included nearly 50 interested politicians, non-profits, philanthropists, professors, church and business leaders to brainstorm and discuss new ideas. Although they’ve stopped short of calling what came out of the meeting a full-on strategy, they are now pursuing several possible ways forward, including identifying new funding, raising standards for daycare centers, and even returning to voters to ask for more funding.New sources of fundingOne potential source of funding fell through two weeks ago. The Shelby County Commission voted down a proposal to spend $2.8 million to fund pre-K for 500 children that had been cut as a result of losing Race to the Top funding.Commissioner Steven Mulroy believes some form of that proposal could still pass if it’s bundled with other initiatives favored by commissioners who are currenlty on the fence. Even if it doesn’t pass this budget cycle, Gibson said that pre-K advocates will be paying close attention to the makeup of the board after the coming election and could return again.At the most recent Shelby County Commission meeting, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson argued once again that it’s no coincidence that only 30 percent of third graders are proficient in literacy and 30 percent of 7th graders are proficient in math: only 30 percent are prepared for kindergarten.The importance of commission funding, isn’t just local, according to advocates; it could bolster an application for a new federal program that funds pre-K expansion.“By demonstrating our commitment to pre-K funding at the local level, we’ll be able to leverage that funding at the federal level, so more than 500 children would be able to receive pre-K instruction,” Mulroy said.But there are two major hurdles for accessing the millions of dollars in funds that have been made available through the US Department of Education through a program intended to seed the expansion of pre-K. The first problem is that the funds are supposed to pass through states not local districts. Gov. Bill Haslam has made it clear that he won’t support any expansions of pre-K funding in Tennessee until a new pre-K study from Vanderbilt is released.So supporters are hoping that they can negotiate a political work-around, so that several of the large municipal districts in the state, such as Shelby County and Nashville, can apply for the funds directly, rather than applying through the state. But even if this worked, the funding is only temporary and they would have to look for more funds again in four years.If supporters can cobble together some funding and put together a more detailed proposal for tax-payers, Cardell Orrin, the Memphis director of Stand for Children, thinks they could even go back to voters a third time to ask for a permanent source of funding“Some people think that people just don’t support pre-K,” Orrin said. “I don’t think any of the data shows people don’t want pre-K. I think they would support it if you developed the details of how you’re going to distribute the money.” He also thinks voters want to know the plan for what will happen to the private pre-K providers.“The issue is caught up in a vicious cycle of politically polluted waters,” said Keith Norman, president of the Memphis NAACP, who blamed political opponents for spreading misinformation about how the money would be spent during the November pre-K referendum. “I don’t think that [the referendum] was understood by the general population.”Leveraging Day Care and Head StartSupporters are also looking to take advantage of federally-subsidized private daycare for working parents. If the daycares functioned more like pre-K classrooms, they wouldn’t need to find as much funding.They are planning to push for tougher certification standards for daycares at the state level: the current three star rating system is more focused on child safety, they say, than preparation for school. They also believe that if parents were better informed, they would put their children in higher quality daycares.“We have to do some real awareness with parents about selecting places that will really help their child be prepared,” said Barbara Prescott of People First. “We have thousands of children in child care, but only 30 percent are reaching kindergarten with pre-literacy skills.”“We want all those daycares that are in the community to be a part of the solution as well,” said Andre Dean, an advocate from the Chamber of Commerce. “We’re not trying to put anyone out of business or recreate the wheel. But we want to raise the levels and standards.”There is also some hope that improvements in the local administration of Head Start — a federal program for children below the poverty line that includes preschool as well as nutritional and health services — will help. Shelby County’s contract to administer Head Start expires on June 30. Representatives for Shelby County Schools could not confirm that the school district will be the new administrators of the program on July 1. But pre-K advocates are hopeful that, if the school system does take control as many are expecting, they will do a better job at preparing students for kindergarten.“If it is Shelby County Schools,” Prescott said. “They really would be looking toward having entities deliver services that would be…more focused on children reaching kindergarten with the pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills that would set them up for success.”More than 20 Head Start workers protested looming layoffs at Monday’s school board meeting.  Read our story here.