Shelby County Commissioners reveal tentative plan to fully fund pre-K for families who can’t afford it

A committee of Shelby County Commissioners floated a new funding plan for preschool on Thursday that would not only fill a gap created by the expiration of a federal grant, but would also provide free pre-K for all in the county who need it.

County government could add an additional $2.5 million for pre-K for the new fiscal year starting on July 1, according to a recommendation from Commissioner Steve Basar.

This would be on top of the $3 million the county — the funding body for local schools — has contributed yearly to pre-K programs, and the increase would add about 300 seats. The recommendation is also $1 million more than what county Mayor Mark Luttrell suggested earlier this month.

But the proposal would also significantly increase the county’s investment in early childhood over time. The county would put $15.1 million toward pre-K during the 2020 year, which would drop to $13.6 annually for 2021.

However, the committee opted to wait a week to approve the recommendation — which would go to a vote before the full County Commission — after Lin Johnson, chief financial officer for Shelby County Schools, told them that the district is considering doubling its funding for pre-K from $2.4 million to $4.8 million.

“We need to synchronize numbers to make sure we’re on the right track,” Commissioner Willie Brooks said. “I’m committed and my colleagues on the commission are committed, but we want to make sure taxpayers understand what we’re trying to do.”

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 free, needs-based pre-K seats in Memphis. The nonprofit group has led the charge to put together the $16 million annually for pre-K seats as part of its $40 million plan to raise the level of early childhood education in Memphis.

The group is hopeful private philanthropy will pick up the remaining $24 million, which will go toward home visitation services, high-quality childcare, and tracking data.

County Commissioner Steve Basar (right) discusses a budget item with fellow commissioner Heidi Shafer (left) during the Commission’s budget and finance committee meeting in 2016. ((Stan Carroll/The Commercial Appeal))

However, the expiration of an $8 million federal grant in 2019 made finding a new source for money even more urgent because the city would lose 1,000 pre-K seats without new dollars. To pay for every child who can not afford pre-K, Memphis would need about 8,400 seats, according to Seeding Success, or $16 million a year.

DeAnna McClendon, director of early childhood for Shelby County Schools, said at the meeting that 2,000 children had requested a seat in a district pre-K classroom, but the district didn’t have space for them. The district provides the vast majority of total pre-K seats in the county — around 7,000.

If Basar’s recommendation is approved, it would put funding well over the $16 million mark by 2020 when combined with the City of Memphis’ contribution.

The city announced earlier this year that it would commit $6 million to pre-K programs — the city’s first major new investment in Memphis classrooms since 2013, when city and county school systems merged. The city would commit $3 million for the 2019 year, but the full $6 million won’t go into effect until 2021.

Basar said he hoped the city would contribute more in the future.

Memphis “is the one getting the limelight, and we’re the ones doing the heavy lifting,” Basar said. “We’re going to be the ones contributing the biggest share. I don’t think that’s fair or right.”

Thursday’s meeting came a day after Shelby County Schools presented its $1 billion budget to the commission for approval. During Wednesday’s talks on the overall budget, Commissioner Heidi Shafer said she wouldn’t support additional pre-K dollars that take away from K-12 funding, which could happen under the recommendation.

“It’s so cute to be able to think well, if we just got them educated in pre-K, then we wouldn’t have to spend as much in K-12,” Shafer, a former pre-K teacher, said Wednesday. “And y’all, that’s a pipe dream.… I don’t want us to take our eyes off the ball of our main focus, K-12.”

But Seeding Success and its partners are banking that more pre-K classrooms will lead to better outcomes for kids.

Mark Sturgis, executive director of Seeding Success, has helped lead the charge for Shelby County’s early childhood education plan. (Caroline Bauman)

“We have a significant number of children in poverty,” said Kathy Buckman Gibson, a Memphis business leader on the board of Seeding Success. “We need to ensure they are receiving the level of education needed to be successful, and increasing quality pre-K seats is a way to set them up for success.”

Seeding Success will manage the new funding from the commission, as well as funds from the city and private philanthropy. The majority of the classrooms sustained by new funding would be in Shelby County Schools, but four classrooms in Millington Municipal Schools and 24 classrooms in the state-run Achievement School District would also benefit.

The pre-K committee will meet again on the recommendation June 7 at 10 a.m. It includes members from Seeding Success, Shelby County Schools, and Commissioners Basar, Brooks, Melvin Burgess, Van Turner and Reginald Milton.

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.