Strickland signs ordinance to set up structure for pre-K funding

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - The pieces are coming together for Memphis and Shelby County to jointly fund need-based pre-K for all 4 year olds.

The city and Mayor Jim Strickland have put Memphis back in the education business for the first time after the city/county school merger in 2013.

Now it's up to the county to commit their funding.

Strickland made it official on Thursday by signing the ordinance passed by the Memphis City Council to set up a funding structure for universal pre-K.

"Right now, only about 20 percent of our third graders read at third grade level in our public schools in Memphis. That's shameful. It's not fair to those kids. And it's not good for our entire city. We want a strong workforce and a strong workforce has to be literate," Strickland said.

The push to expand pre-K in Shelby County has been guided largely by education non-profit Seeding Success, which helped get a federal grant in 2014 to start need-based pre-K. That grant expires in 2019, endangering 1,000 seats.

With the city's commitment, pre-K enrollment should grow from 7,500 seats now to 8,500 in the next few years.

Mark Sturgis is the executive director of Seeding Success.

"There's data coming out that shows 4 year olds who received pre-K, they go on to graduate high school at higher rates they take more advanced classes," he said.

Sturgis said $3 million from the city will likely be combined with $5 million from the county and Shelby County School to fund the first year.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell's budget, which was introduced this week, does contain money for pre-K and is awaiting commission approval.

"I think everyone's on the same page. It's now negotiating the details of where those funds will end up so we can get those funds committed and in play,," Sturgis said.

Additional investments will be needed in the coming years to grow the program.

"When we make it a reality, when we make universal pre-K a reality, I think you're going to see some private sector foundations come in and put money into it to help early childhood education," Strickland said.

Sturgis said the seats funded through this program are not pre-K seats limited to Memphis. There are classrooms across the county and even in suburban areas.

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