How much money is our community willing to invest to improve academic achievement rates and educational outcomes in Shelby County Schools?
As the November 6th presidential and municipal elections draw near, that is one of the questions that local residents will have to considered.
In August, the Shelby County Commission approved a resolution to increase the county sales tax rate by ½ cent from 2.25 percent to 2.75 percent, representing a projected $62 million in additional revenue annually. The resolution will appear on the ballot as the county sales and use tax referendum. If the referendum passes, Tennessee law requires that ½ of proceeds generated by the increase shall be distributed and used for school purposes. Schools stand to gain an extra $31 million per year.
The thought of raising the county sales tax rate is sparking a fair amount of criticism and concern. The referendum is being supported by elected officials in local, state and federal government, as well as various civic and community groups. However, opponents believe that the increase is premature and that potential school budget cuts should be further explored. Proponents believe that the tax increase is essential to help close a staggering gap in education funding that currently exists.
The proposed budget for the schools merger includes a starting shortfall of $57 million. Because the city of Memphis no longer has a legal obligation to fund schools, in 2013 Shelby County government will become the single funding source.
Without the additional revenue that the ½ cent county sales tax increase would generate, it is unlikely that funding will exist to implement key recommendations from the Transition Planning Commission's schools merger plan, such as expanding access to pre-K to all children in Shelby County.
To improve educational outcomes in Shelby County, having the financial resources in place to meet the needs of all children is key.
According to The Urban Child Institute, preparing students for a lifetime of achievement begins with establishing a solid foundation for cognitive, social, and emotional development. Early childhood development programs such as Pre-K and Head Start are vitally important.
Research shows that before entering kindergarten, enrollment in Pre-K gives children the opportunity to develop valuable school readiness skills such as language and literacy, critical thinking, and problem solving. Optimal brain development in young children occurs in response to positive early experiences, and Pre-K enrollment gives children an early advantage over their peers.
Based on current enrollment numbers for Memphis and Shelby County school systems, there are more than 500 families on the waiting list for the voluntary Pre-K program.
The combined total from both city and county systems of at-risk (free/reduced lunch) students who qualify but are not currently being served by voluntary pre-K is 4,198. Taking in to account the 28 Race to the Top classrooms that will be defunded starting in 2013-14, the total number of students not served increases to 4,758.
School leaders have indicated that inability to offer access to voluntary Pre-K to all children who qualify is a result of classroom and funding shortages.
Early childhood development experts and educators agree that Pre-K is an invaluable prerequisite for student success.
The Urban Child Institute believes that new fiscal investments in early childhood development are critically important. The organization has released several publications to educate parents and residents on best practices to promote optimal brain development in young children. For example, the "2012 Data Book" and the "Kindergarten Readiness Begins at Birth" parent handbook outline the short- and long-term benefits that early childhood education provides to children, families and communities.
"You can't talk about closing the achievement gap and Pre-K is not in the sentence as well," said Divalyn Gordon, principal of Ridgeway Early Learning Center, an inclusion Pre-K program in Memphis.
"There's a big difference between children who have had exposure to early childhood education, and those who do not."
Research shows that children who have no exposure to out-of-home care before kindergarten (early childhood education) are markedly behind their peers in kindergarten, and may experience learning and developmental challenges throughout school and into adulthood.
"Children who are exposed to early education are going to perform much better on their achievement test scores because they have the foundational skills that teachers can easily build upon," said Gordon.
"If a child comes in (to school) already behind, it is very hard for a teacher to move them where they need to be."
In recent years, public education – specifically the pressing need to close the achievement gap between low and higher income students – has dominated public policy discussions across the country.
Today one thing is certain: Pre-K matters. Investing in the expansion of the voluntary pre-k program in Shelby County will improve educational achievement, college/career attainment, and economic conditions.
Studies show that the economic benefits of quality early investments to be significant, which can lead to a $14-$17 return on every dollar spent.
Outside of making a personal fiscal investment, local residents can support student achievement through mentoring, volunteering, and advocating for better schools.
As long-time educator Karl Fisch once stated, "We are preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist, to use technologies that have not yet been invented and to solve problems that we don't even know are problems yet."
Given that notion, it is apparent that there is enough work to be done to improve student success in Shelby County for everyone to carry a small part of the load.