Will Voters Back Tax Hike for Pre-K in Memphis?

Nov 21, 2013

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A "Yes" vote on the referendum would mean higher taxes in the check-out line. But is it worth free Pre-K classes for Memphis' 4-year-olds?

When Memphis voters hit the polls today, one of the things most will decide on is a controversial tax increase that would create a new citywide school system for 4-year-olds.

It's called Ordinance No. 5495 Local Option Sales Tax, and if it passes, the sales tax in Memphis will rise from 9.25 percent, to the state maximum of 9.75 percent. In other words, an extra 25 cents on a purchase of fifty dollars. 

The tax will raise $47 million dollars, the bulk of which will fund free pre-kindergarten classes for an estimated five to eight thousand Memphis children.

Supporters, such as the non-profit Urban Child Institute, say that pre-kindergarten classes help close what they call the "achievement gap" that exists between children of low income families and those of middle class families, who ostensibly have better access to quality early education.

Keith Norman, the Pastor of First Baptist Church on Broad Avenue, says that getting economically disadvantaged children on the right track early on could make a big social impact for a relatively low cost.

"It's extremely important to recognize that there are only so many things you can do, and if you can pick one that could move the needle the most, would would it be? I think it's Pre-K," Norman says. "It improves education which we recognize for helping to steer young people away from crime, it helps the city in which we live by helping to have highly qualified workers. And so this is the one single most thing we can do to contribute to our education system, to give our teachers better students to work with coming in, so that they don't spend so much time trying to 'get the students up to a learning capability in the third grade.'"

Norman is also a member of the Pre-K Commission, appointed by Mayor AC Wharton. If the referendum passes, their task will be to figure out how this new program will work, and how the money will be spent. The commission is studying program models in other states, as Memphis would be the first city in Tennessee to fund universal Pre-K.

The referendum has the endorsements of the NAACP, the Greater Memphis Chamber, and the unanimous vote of the Memphis City Council. 

But there are opponents. Not necessarily of early education, but of Memphis’ way of going about it. 

Mike Kernell is a former Tennessee State Representative and a Democrat. He's among those who wonder why the city, just four months after disbanding its own school district, would create a new education model from scratch.

"The city, after saying they want to get out of the school business, is setting up another school board for one grade," Kernell says. "No rules and regulations. No contract procedures. A special school district, in essence, and then asking for a tax increase that would then preclude the countywide schools for ever using the sales tax."

Opponents are also concerned about how that tax money is being used. $30 million of it will go to Pre-K programs, but an additional 17 million is supposed to help decrease property taxes. 

Kernell says that a refund for property owners hits poor people the hardest.

"The poorest of the poor are going to pay a half-cent more on necessities," he says. "Many of them already have Pre-K and Head Start. And then people will say 'well, at least now they'll get a property tax reduction,' but all those tens of thousands out there who are poor and rent will never see it. It'll go to their landlord."

Opponents say there are other options, such as expanding pre-k classrooms already funded by the state lottery, or accepting new federal funding that could help an additional thousand children without duplicating existing programs, such as Head Start.

Of the 76 hundred people who cast ballots in early voting this month, there were higher numbers of women, African-Americans and voters 65 and older.

The Reverend Keith Norman says he and the commission expect that the public will side with early education. After that, it's back to school for the City of Memphis.

Voting continues today until 7 p.m. at precincts throughout Memphis. 

Click here to find the polling place for your precinct.