The Memphis City Council committed on Tuesday to find a way to invest at least $8 million in pre-kindergarten classrooms before 2019, marking their first big investment in Memphis schools in four years.
The measure, which was approved 11-0, did not provide a funding stream for the multimillion-dollar need, but essentially holds Memphis to find a way to come up with $8 million for 1,000 pre-K seats that the city stands to lose with the expiration of a major federal grant in 2019.
Councilwoman Janis Fullilove recused her initial yes vote without comment.
Councilman Kemp Conrad, who introduced the resolution, told his fellow council members that this measure is a way for the city to once again fund programs that help children. Tuesday’s vote marks the first new money for Memphis classrooms since 2013 when city and county school systems merged.
“We can make a statement, a formalized action to the mayor who is very supportive of this issue, as a policy-making body,” Conrad said. “We’re making a statement to other funding bodies, Shelby County Schools, the Shelby County Commission and private entities that the city can come to the table with money.”
At an executive session two weeks ago, Mayor Jim Strickland said he supported the initiative and that the seats could mean the difference in children developing the reading skills they need by third grade to be successful in school.
Councilman Bill Morrison, a former Memphis teacher, brought forth an amendment before the vote that would have expanded the measure to also guarantee funding for schools beyond pre-K, such as after-school programs and career and technical training. However, he withdrew his amendment after Councilman Berlin Boyd suggested he bring the issue as a separate resolution in the future.
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 group estimates that about 1,000 additional seats are needed to offer free pre-K to all who need it.
Mark Sturgis, the executive director of Seeding Success, told Chalkbeat after the meeting that the council vote will spur further collaboration between private and public funders to bolster pre-K in Memphis. Seeding Success will help to lead a closed-door meeting tomorrow between City Council members, Shelby County Commissioners and philanthropic and private donors.
“Now, it’s about leveraging the momentum from tonight with coordinated conversations,” Sturgis said. “We have to build the infrastructure to do this right. It’s all about creating quality pre-K.”
Charles Lampkin, a Memphis parent whose three sons were students in pre-K classrooms, said during public comment that the free early education made a big impact on this family’s life.
“My (now) first-grader is reading on grade-level and above and my kindergartener is at grade level,” he said, adding that his third son was currently enrolled in pre-K classes at Porter-Leath. “I don’t know what my children would have been like if they did not have that benefit, where they would be in terms of performance. There’s a lot of disparity here with our children. Fortunately for me, my children have benefited.”