It's a no-brainer that educating Memphis' children should be one of the city's greatest priorities, but some scratch their heads in doubt when talk turns to raising taxes to get that done.
With that sentiment as a backdrop, supporters of a proposed half-cent sales tax increase to fund pre-kindergarten education are getting busy trying to drum up support. On Tuesday, the Rev. Keith Norman, president of the local NAACP, announced that the Memphis Branch backs the proposal.
The announcement via a media release simply spread a position that Norman had made known in late August at the Children's Museum of Memphis during a local group's kickoff of what is being dubbed The Memphis Pre-K Initiative.
Norman's wife is a pre-k educator.
"Early childhood education is an important civil rights issue and one of the NAACP's "5 Game Changers for the 21st Century," Norman said in the released statement.
The pre-K Initiative is designed to be a citywide grassroots campaign. The goal is to "persuade every citizen that the proper funding of pre-kindergarten classes is critical, not only for each child's academic success but also for the future success of the Memphis as it competes in a global economy."
Norman, senior pastor of First Baptist Church – Broad, is serving as a co-chair, with Kathy Buckman Gibson, chairman of Buckman Laboratories.
If voters approve the proposed half-cent sales tax increase, which will be on the ballot this fall, it has been projected to generate about $47 million annually. About $30 million of that is being looked to as funding for pre-kindergarten classes for about 5,000 Memphis children 4 years of age who now are said to be unable to attend pre-kindergarten because of lack of funding.
The remaining $17 million would be used to reduce city property taxes.
"Thousands of children are left out of pre-K each year because of federal and local budget cuts, and it is imperative that we, as a community, find a way to make sure those most vulnerable have a starting chance," said Norman.
Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said two of his administration's top strategic priorities are investing in the city's youth and safe and vibrant neighborhoods.
"Early childhood education is a powerful weapon in the fight against crime and violence, and I strongly support public investments in programs shown to prevent children from becoming criminals," Wharton reiterated on Wednesday.
"There are few things more important to our community than providing our four-year-olds with the firm educational foundation they need to succeed in school and avoid the criminal justice system."
No date for the fall vote has been set. City Councilman Jim Strickland, who sponsored the proposal, has said there are indications from the Shelby County Election Commission that it will be Nov. 21.
"Memphis is at a crossroads," Strickland told The New Tri-State Defender on Wednesday. "Since 1980, over 110,000 people, or 20 percent of our total population, have moved out of Memphis. We have made up for that outward migration by annexing areas and forcing people to live in the city. But future annexations are doubtful due to changes in state law.
"As a result, we must do everything we can to stop the hemorrhaging of population, jobs, and our tax base," he said.
People are leaving because of crime, schools, and, to a lesser degree, Memphis' high property tax rate, said Strickland.
"In addition, nearly 30 percent of our children are growing up in poverty. The Memphis Pre-K Initiative addresses each of these challenges."
Strickland notes that most areas of the country that have had pre-K have found that the students who attend pre-K have higher academic achievement in kindergarten and beyond than the students who do not attend pre-K.
"When these students enter kindergarten ready to learn, they achieve so much more. Second, all studies of pre-K have shown that the behavior of students who completed pre-K is much better than those who do not attend; pre-K students have fewer absences, fewer behavioral problems, and drop out of school less often."
To Strickland, that all adds up to this: "This truly is our chance to advance."
Asked for his read on the public response to the pre-K funding proposal, Strickland said, "It is too early to get an accurate read on the opinions of most people. Most folks do not know the referendum is scheduled or do not fully understand the proposal.
"The campaign has just begun. We are getting a growing number and diversity of people supporting the proposal."