(Memphis) Turn on your TV, and it’s hard to miss one advertising campaign. It’s designed to convince you to support a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for pre-kindergarten in Memphis.
Supporters such as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton call pre-k a game changer for the city.
“This will be one of the most transformative things this city has undergone,” Wharton said.
Opponents such as former Shelby County School Board Member Dr. Kenneth Whalum said the tax puts some Memphians, mainly the poor, completely out of the game.
“Memphis is the poorest city in the United States of America. So, why would you put a more regressive tax burden on this city in the United States of America? It doesn’t make sense,” Dr. Whalum said.
If approved, it would pay for pre-k for more than 5,000 4-year-olds.
Memphis City Councilmen Jim Strickland and Lee Harris said there are many benefits.
“I’m very much in favor of pre-k. In other places that have pre-k the children advance academically faster than children who don’t have pre-k and they behave better in school and life,” Strickland said.
“If we get kids off the streets that would make things better. That will make kids more employable, drop crime, there are so many positive effects from these types of programs,” Harris said.
WREG-TV commentator Otis Sanford said there’s a lot at stake.
“People are going to be asked to tax themselves, which would take us to the maximum allowed in sales tax in Tennessee and the issue is are voters going to do that?” Sanford said.
Supporters say the tax increase would raise $47 million a year with $30 million of that going to pre-k classes. The remainder of the money would be used to lower property tax rates.
“The way this proposition is worded if there is any money that isn’t spent in a given year on pre-k, guess who gets it back? The citizens of Memphis by way of a tax reduction. So, either way citizens stand to gain,” Wharton said.
“You are lying when you’re saying if we pass this sales tax hike everybody is going to receive pre-k. It’s just not true. You know it’s not true, but they’re not going to say it in those commercials,” Dr. Whalum said.
Right now, Memphis has 170 high quality public pre-k classrooms and serves about 30 percent of the city’s 4-year-olds through Shelby County Schools and Head Start.
Supporters say studies show an expanded pre-k plan in a high-crime city such as Memphis could help pave the way to erasing problems such as poverty and reducing juvenile crime and more graduation.
“I’ll tell you one of the key reasons we have folks on the wrong side of the law, we have so many children in juvenile court, criminal court and so many in jail is because of educational failure and it starts early,” Wharton said.
“It’s all going to boil down to the turnout and who can the most convincing argument,” Sanford said.
A 200 person Memphis Pre-K Committee and its website, Memphisprek.com, have raised more than $200,000 to pay for advertising on TV and radio. Mayor Wharton has also picked nominees for the Memphis Pre-K Commission to oversee the program, if approved by voters on November 21.
Opponents argue the city wouldn’t need the half cent sales tax increase if it wasn’t giving a way millions of dollars in tax breaks to lure corporations to town called payments in leau of taxes or PILOTS.