More than 100 Memphis nonprofit leaders call for city to fund education and criminal justice reforms

Jetia Porter, 17, left, and Alzale’a Braxton, 16, plant seeds on the Girls Inc. Youth Farm in Frayser last year. Girls Inc. was among more than 100 local nonprofits that decried racism and called on the City of Memphis to provide more funds to K-12 education. (Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal)

More than 100 Memphis nonprofit leaders are speaking out in support of protester demands for the City of Memphis to provide more money for K-12 education. 

The letter, led by Black nonprofit leaders and supported by non-Black peers, was sent to elected officials and local corporations Monday and says nonprofits “see the direct impact of systemic racism and oppression daily.” 

The City of Memphis does not provide money to Shelby County Schools, the largest district in the state that serves Memphis students, outside of a court settlement from a lawsuit over funding. The letter calls for, among other things, the city’s budget to “renew investment in K-12 education... including support for early literacy, high school success, trauma-responsive supports, and increased access to tech, art and music education.” 

The demands are one example of mounting pressure for the city to allocate more money to Shelby County Schools, which educates a majority of the city’s students. About 75% of district students are Black.

Memphis has dramatically reduced its yearly funding to K-12 education in the past decade and Mayor Jim Strickland has repeatedly asserted the city is not obligated to change that. The former city school system merged with the county district in 2013. 

The city pays about $6 million annually to add more prekindergarten classes and $1.3 million to Shelby County Schools as a result of a court settlement. The City Council is considering allocating $5 million of its coronavirus relief funds to the district to purchase laptops and internet access, but the mayor’s administration worries the move may set a precedent to pay the district in future years.

“We call for a new day and new way of doing business in our city. Expecting nonprofits and public goodwill to solve these challenges is not enough,” the letter said. Cardell Orrin, the executive director of education advocacy organization Stand for Children and one of the letter’s creators, said the group sent the demands to City Council, county commissioners, city and county mayors, the county sheriff, the city police director, the district attorney, and the local chamber of commerce.

Signers include leaders of three charter school networks, 10 education advocacy groups, and more than two dozen organizations that work directly with students. (One of the signers is Memphis Education Fund, a Chalkbeat funder.)

Local protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer, have demanded police reforms, but protesters also want to see other changes to eliminate systemic racism. 

“Our black and brown residents face some of the highest inequality and poverty in the country,” the letter said. “From education to wages, we have constructed and perpetuated a system that keeps our residents in poverty. We call on leadership in all sectors — government, nonprofits, and corporations — to adopt an agenda that addresses these issues.”

The letter also calls for more police accountability, corporations to pay a living wage, more funding for public transportation, and for the city to drop charges against protesters.

You can read the full letter below:

Correction, June 17, 2020: A previous photo for this story incorrectly identified the ballet group featured. New Ballet Ensemble and School has a program at Dunbar Elementary, not Ballet Memphis, one of the petition signers.

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