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Be For Our Kids but Against Bad Policy – Vote NO on Nov. 21st

November 18, 2013

Call us kid haters if you must (and some will – it’s what they do), but Eddie and I have early voted NO to the vaunted 1/2 per cent sales tax hike. It’s not an easy stand, but we believe it’s the right one for Memphis and our children.

This Thursday, November 21, Memphians will go to the polls to decide whether to SalesTaxincrease our combined local sales tax rate from 9.25% to 9.75%. Tennessee already has the highest combined sales tax rate in the country. Under the proposed ordinance, Memphis’ local sales taxes will reach the maximum allowed by Tennessee law, leaving no option for any future needs to be funded by our sales taxes.

Compare Memphis’ consumer tax burden to Mississippi’s maximum combined state and local sales tax rate of 7-7.25%. That  $599, 50-inch Sony big screen television you want to buy the family for Christmas will cost an additional $58.40 in taxes if you purchase it in Memphis. Slip over the line to the Best Buy in Southaven and you will save $16.47.

The ordinance itself includes this jarring little morsel of truth:

Whereas, the combined property tax for Memphis and Shelby County results in Memphians paying the highest tax rate in Tennessee, by far, and the local rate clearly puts Memphis at a competitive disadvantage in the recruitment and retention of people and job producing businesses.

So voters must not take this decision lightly, even though the myriad of pro-hike news articles keep telling you “it’s only a half cent increase on a dollar.” (Do your own math: add that half cent per dollar to the total amount you spend in Memphis over a year.)

But, as we have been incessantly reminded, this vote is “for the kids.” And nobody should vote against our kids.

We agree.

But exactly what will those kids receive? And is this the best use of our scarce resources in benefit of our children?

Let’s dig deeper into the issue.

The Memphis City Council estimates the increase will raise about $47 million next year.  The Council promises to commit the new revenues to funding a Pre-Kindergarten program for about 4,000 four-year olds in Memphis. The ordinance states:

Shall there be levied an additional City of Memphis local option sales tax in the amount of one half percent (0.5%), the proceeds of which levy shall be held in trust by the Pre-K Commission until appropriated and then shall only be used to fund a Pre-Kindergarten program to be governed by the Pre-K Commission with all excess funds paid to city government by June 30 of each year to be used by city government solely to reduce the ad valorem property tax rate.

Please note that the amount of money dedicated to Pre-K isn’t specified, the Pre-K Commission isn’t defined, and arguably, the Pre-K Commission could decide to spend all the additional revenues on Pre-K education.

Eddie and I voted NO for three reasons:

  1. Despite reference to the Urban Child Institute’s “findings” cited in the Ordinance , vote_no_ask_circlethere is no conclusive evidence that Pre-K education positively affects children’s long-term educational outcomes.
  2. Memphians decisively voted to take Memphis out of the education business in 2011 when they approved the surrender of the Memphis City Schools’ charter.
  3. Local education has traditionally been supported by property taxes because only property taxes provide a consistent source of revenue for the long-term nature of educational endeavors.

Evidence that Pre-K “Works”

The Urban Child Institute, an organization we respect, admire and support, has not conducted original research on the impact of Pre-K.  UCI has cited  other studies that indicate gains made by children who received Pre-K education. On its website, the UCI refers to the Tennessee Comptroller’s May 2011  Report “Assessing the Impact of the Tennessee’s  Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Program.” This multiyear report by the Strategic Research Group is based on studies of Tennessee children in state-funded Pre-K programs. It states:

“On the whole, the results of analyses conducted to date in this series of analyses of outcomes in Grades K-5 point to an initial near-term advantage associated with Pre-K participation in Kindergarten and First Grade—primarily for students who received Free/Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) or are considered “at-risk” due to socioeconomic status. Longitudinal analyses conducted in two previous reports have found that this initial advantage tends to be followed by a pattern of convergence, although a slight advantage of Pre-K participation appears to be maintained among economically disadvantaged students through the Second Grade. For students in Grades 3-5, analyses have found either no significant effect of Pre-K participation on assessment scores, or, in some cases, have found that students who attended Pre-K, on average, score lower than their non-Pre-K counterparts on some assessments. (emphasis added)

oops sign

But there is another highly regarded study based on Tennessee research. Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute released a report in August 2013 entitled “Evaluation of the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Program: Pre-Kindergarten and First Grade Follow-Up Results from the Randomized Control Design.” The Vanderbilt study was conducted with assistance from the Tennessee Department of Education. Its goal was to determine “whether children who participate in the TN-VPK make greater academic and behavioral gains in areas that prepare them for later schooling than comparable children who do not participate in the program.”

The results?

By the end of the kindergarten and first grade years, the academic achievement differences between children who attended TN-VPK and those who did not had diminished and were no longer statistically significant.

Similarly, ratings of academic preparedness and classroom behavior by the first grade teachers showed no differences between TN-VPK participants and non-participants.

The Vanderbilt researchers did find some non-cognitive benefits from TN-VPK:

Fewer TN-VPK participants were retained in kindergarten than non-participants.

School attendance in first grade was somewhat better.

They also noted that their research findings were similar to the majority of other studies of Pre-K benefits, indicating that immediate gains scored by Pre-K participants tend to “diminish in later years” (typically by grade 3 or 4).

It is true that other multiyear Pre-K studies find non-academic benefits from Pre-K attendance, including grade retention, behavioral issues, and even higher graduation rates. These studies are not necessarily comparable to the population of children Shelby County voluntary Pre-K seeks to serve, however. In short, the verdict is out on how long the salutary effects of Pre-K last.

This is one of those inconvenient truths that just about all liberal voices are ignoring.  More about this later.

On to our #2 reason for voting NO:

We Went There, We Did That, and It Wasn’t Pretty 

March 8, 2011, Memphis voters approved the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter by a vote of 47,763 to 23,565, more than 2:1.  Only the voters themselves know  why they voted to surrender. There is widespread evidence and agreement, however, that Memphis’ elected and appointed leaders failed miserably at providing the city’s children comparable education to that found in the pre-merger Shelby County Schools. Nothing has changed that would suggest better results from Memphis public administration of Pre-K.

The rush to implement universal Pre-K is a not-unexpected result of the MCS-SCS merger. Pre-K is one of those high-priority issues that education reform consultants and liberal interests champion.  It’s politically popular. It’s relatively easy to persuade voters to support it. And heaven knows, we need some definitive solutions to the critical problems facing inner city and at risk children.

But Pre-K will not solve the problems of children in our elementary, middle, and high schools now who are several grades behind.  And the best Tennessee research doesn’t indicate that TN-VPK will help children achieve long-lasting academic results – like reading, writing, and arithmetic. The things we are failing to teach now.

What exactly is the plan here?  Is there a plan? Or is this just throwing dollars into  a feel-good scheme dreamed up by ambitious local  politicians to capitalize on the still-warm, consultant-fed, TPC-led, desperate desire  Memphians have to create a  “World Class” education for all our kids?

What’s the Plan, Jim?

another bones and kirk

Memphis City Council members Jim Strickland and Shea Flinn are co-sponsors of the ordinance. Jackson Baker and Toby Sells wrote about Mr. Strickland’s political ambitions in a November 14, 2013 Memphis Flyer cover piece entitled – what else? – For the Kids. Carefully establishing Mr. Strickland’s bona fides as a Democrat for the Flyer’s base, the article goes on to quote him as saying:

“If I was a magician and I could do anything I wanted in Memphis, I would wave the wand and every third-grader would read at third-grade level, 100 percent,” Strickland said. “Pre-K is not going to make 100 percent of the kids read at third-grade level, but only 28 percent of them read at third-grade level now in the former city schools.”

So Jim Strickland thinks Pre-K will improve reading skills? Didn’t he read the research?

There-is-a-difference-between-a-plan-and-good-intentions.-8x10

Moving on to our third reason for voting NO:

Education Shouldn’t be Funded by Sales Taxes 

Sales tax collections are much more variable than property tax revenues. That is why essential public services like police and fire protection are not funded by sales tax.  Public education is a long-term proposition, already stretching 13 years. Property taxes and state taxes are the traditional forms of educational funding at the local level, and attempting to fund Pre-K from sales tax revenues is simply bad policy, destined to generate future regrets.

According to the Flyer article, Messrs. Strickland and Flinn aren’t even sure how many children will be served by expanding Pre-K, or how much money is needed.

The new pre-K program would be available for every 4-year-old in Memphis. Strickland said nearly 8,000 children in Memphis would be eligible for the program but estimated that only 5,000 of them would actually become new participants, as some are already in existing programs and others might not seek enrollment for one reason or another.

For example, an estimated 3,300 children are already being served locally in federally funded Head Start programs. Head Start, as both Strickland and co-sponsor Flinn acknowledge, overlaps somewhat with their proposed pre-K initiative and establishes a means-tested income threshold based on the poverty-line indices.

But even in the unforeseen event of 100 percent participation — 8,000 children — Strickland says the new sales-tax rate would generate enough money for all eligible children to go to pre-K.

You were expecting that “surplus” from the tax hike to reduce your property taxes?  Maybe not, depending on how many eligible children actually enroll in Pre-K.

By the way, President Obama wants to expand Pre-K and Head Start. Governor Haslam has also expressed a desire to offer universal Pre-K across Tennessee. Has  the impact of those potential sources of funding been considered? And will the appointed – not elected  – Pre-K Commission make all the allocation decisions?

Given all the unknowns, does it make sense to use the last 0.5% available before Memphis hits the maximum tax burden2.75% local sales tax to fund an unproven, unplanned (“Trust us,” they say) venture into city-led Pre-K that may not provide for all necessary future needs of either Pre-K-aged children or the rest of our populace? Does it make sense  to increase Memphis’ already exorbitant local tax rate, guaranteeing an even greater  population and retail sales exodus  outside the county and down into Mississippi?

Let’s Fix Things, But Sensibly

Eddie and I are passionate advocates of high quality public education for every child. We believe in Memphis, and are dedicated to gathering people of good will and good sense together to make this city a better place. We must fix our schools. Pre-K may or may not be helpful, but first, with the scarce resources we have, let’s consider the big picture.  

teen dropoutMany students are graduating from Memphis schools without the requisite skills to function in the real world, much less college.  Local employers say that job applicants can’t read or communicate in writing adequately  or solve basic problems.  Shelby County teens have the highest rate of school suspensions, expulsions, and dropouts in Tennessee, according to “Kids Count, a 2011 study by the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. 

the cost of losing kids

Each year that we allow these horrendous problems to continue, the heart and soul and future of Memphis die a little faster. Many voters want to do something, anything, to stop the steady collapse of the city we love. But we must be wise. Many of our current problems have been created by bad policies, including “No Fail” promotion of children who have been allowed to progress through school without being taught the standards set for each grade level.

good intentons are not enough

We have confused good intentions with good outcomes. 

Let’s back away from this mad rush to jump on the politically fashionable Pre-K bus, take a breath, and get to work on a serious educational plan for our existing K-12 students. Use those eminent members of the Pre-K Commission to devise a workable plan that will ensure that every 2nd grader in Shelby County Schools can read. (And no, that plan isn’t Common Core.) If we decide as a city that we want to extend voluntary Pre-K to give future students  a better start, let’s do it after we have accepted responsibility for properly educating our current K-12 students.

Do what is really best for the kids. Vote NO to the sales tax hike on November 21st.

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