Memphis mayor endorses pre-K investments as City Council plans vote

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said Tuesday that his administration supports investing in pre-K programs that the city stands to lose with the expiration of a major federal grant in 2019.

Meanwhile, the City Council’s executive committee recommended approving a resolution that would commit Memphis to coming up with at least $8 million to fill the gap.

At issue are at least 1,000 pre-K seats in classrooms serving mostly low-income families. Strickland said the seats could mean the difference in children developing the reading skills they need by third grade to be successful in school.

“The limited funds that our community has for pre-K is showing real success for those students who are participating,” he told council members. “I’m looking forward to identifying what city funds we can contribute to quality pre-K. It can truly be a game changer not only for these individual students but the entire community.”

The council likely will vote Dec. 19 on the resolution. If it’s approved, the city would have until next April to determine a funding source as part of its new budget. Raising the hotel-motel tax has been floated as one idea, but that option wasn’t discussed on Tuesday.

READ: Will pre-K put the city of Memphis back in the education business?

Contributing to early childhood education programs would mark the city’s first major new investment in Memphis classrooms since 2013 when city and county school systems merged. Shelby County government has since carried the load on funding Memphis schools, including contributing $3 million to pre-K programs. The void has sparked frequent gripes from county and community leaders asking when the city will pony up for public education again.

Currently, about 7,420 of the city’s 4-year-olds attend free school programs, and a coalition of nonprofit groups led by Seeding Success has been pushing to maintain — and even grow — the number of pre-K seats in Memphis.

Several council members expressed concern about the resolution’s lack of specifics on funding, even as they heralded the benefits of pre-K.

Councilman Martavius Jones brought up the challenges of sustained funding as city councils come and go, while Councilman Worth Morgan expressed concern about the quality of education that pre-K students will get eventually as grade-schoolers.

“My biggest concern is the … continuity once students get to the K-3 system,” Morgan said. “More than a promise, we need a real commitment from Shelby County Schools that if a child comes through our high-quality pre-K, they won’t regress or fade out.”

Morgan’s comments echoed concerns prompted by a five-year Vanderbilt University study about the quality of Tennessee’s public pre-K program. The study, released in 2015, found that children who participated benefitted significantly at first, but that those benefits faded out by the third grade. Researchers suggested that one reason might be the quality of education those students receive once they get to first grade and beyond.

You can read the council’s resolution in full below: