Some issues rise above the day-to-day politics of our city. Surely the opportunity to give every child in Memphis an equal and fair start in life is one of them.
It is why every Memphian should vote to guarantee that our new school district has the funding that it needs to turn the promise of better schools into reality. The good news is that we can make it happen with a very small increase in our sales tax – only five cents on a $50 purchase.
It is a small price to pay for such big dividends in our children's lives.
Many things under way in Memphis are cause for optimism and excitement, but nothing equals the creation of a new merged school district that opens a historic new era for our community.
Memphians took a bold step toward a better future when we voted for a new school district. Now we have to make sure the new district has the funding to fulfill its potential. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform our community by reinventing and reinvesting in education.
The need for additional funding is inarguable and clear. With approval of a sales tax increase, thousands of our children will have the Pre-K education that research has conclusively proven can transform their lives. In addition, our new merged district enters its first year with a shortfall of about $60 million and the new funding address that gap.
A vote in favor of an increase in the sales tax is not only a vital investment in better schools, but it sends a message that we reject those who sow division for their own narrow political interests.
Memphians overwhelmingly voted in favor of a new district. Meanwhile, outside Memphis, the towns turned their back on a shared educational future with us, voting to go their own way and to ignore the opportunity for every citizen of Shelby County to share equally in the future of our schools. Now, some of the people who pushed for these separate town school districts are working to defeat the passage of the countywide sales tax increase.
That's because if the increase is approved at the polls, these towns, which have already approved a sales tax increase, will share their sales tax revenues with our new district. If the upcoming vote fails on November 6, the towns will get to keep all of their sales taxes for their schools.
Some of the same people who advocated for the towns not to join Memphis in a new district now claim to oppose the sales tax increase because they are concerned about Memphians paying a regressive tax. They have already proven what their true agenda is and there is no question that it is not about acting in the best interests of our city.
Yes, sales taxes are regressive, but because of Tennessee law, the two major funding sources for local government and schools are regressive – property taxes and sales taxes.
Because of it, Memphians have a choice. If the increased sales taxes are not approved, it is likely that there will eventually be a property tax increase. Sales taxes may be as regressive as property taxes but there's one big difference: everyone who spends money in Memphis – including those who commute here to work and those who come here to visit – pay sales taxes. That is not the case with property taxes.
Meanwhile, the same opponents of the sales tax increase depend on untruths to sow doubt and confusion. They have suggested if Memphians approve the increase in the sales tax, the money might be spent on things other than education.
There's only one problem: it isn't true. State law mandates that the $30 million for schools raised from the sales tax increase can only be spent on education. It is illegal to do anything else.
These same opponents also mislead when they say that the new district has not made the case that it needs more money. School leaders have already proven that the new district is about $60 million short in the amount of money it needs for the quality school system that we all want. Even with the new revenues, the merged district will have to economize and increase efficiency to balance its budget.
Best of all, the new sales tax revenue gives the school district the opportunity to provide Pre-K classes for 4,000 young children, who are now denied access because lack of funds restricts the number of classes available. For way too long, Pre-K has been seen as a good thing to do, but it has not been seen as a necessity. Today, we know better: Pre-K can transform the course of a child's life, resulting in everything from improved vocabulary to improved attendance to better graduation rates.
A Pre-K-12 system is the smartest investment we can make. It pays big dividends and produces better student outcomes and more college graduates as Memphis and the nation compete in a knowledge economy.
Our children trust us to do what is right for their futures. That is why we must vote to increase the sales tax rate by one half of one cent. It is our opportunity to act with purpose and resolve. Our cause is too great and the potential too transformative for us to do anything different.