There is no longer any argument about the value of Pre-K in Memphis and Shelby County. The challenge now is to fund it adequately so that every child can benefit from it.

A year ago this month, The Urban Child Institute wrote that Memphis and Shelby County had reached the tipping point on early child development. Unfortunately, there are signs now that we may tip in the wrong direction.

We were hopeful that the new unified school district, more than anything, would be characterized by its firm support for pre-K, but recent news about Pre-K has been disturbing. The Shelby County School Board has proposed cuts to Pre-K to deal with an $8 million funding gap.

Communitywide hopes for expanding Pre-K have given way the possibility of reducing the number of children now in Pre-K classes by one-third, meaning that 82 classrooms with 1,640 children will be eliminated. This is proposed for a program that was already touching less than half of the four-year-olds who need it.

When the Transition Planning Commission turned in its 172 recommendations for the new school district last fall, it spoke forcefully for the community when it put this as the #1 priority: free Pre-K for every four-year-old in Shelby County.

A groundswell of support for Pre-K funding has emerged from all parts of the community, and we are encouraged that this smart investment – with its impressive return on investment – will ultimately be made. For every $1 spent on Pre-K, there is a $5.12 benefit.

We appreciate the difficult budget decisions that are being made by the school board and others governmental bodies, but when it comes to Pre-K, the question is not “can we afford to fund it” but “can we afford not to fund it?” After all, every dollar in funding for Pre-K is a direct investment in the future of Memphis and Shelby County.

By the time persons who attended Pre-K are 27 years old, they are three times more likely to own a home than someone who did not attend Pre-K, twice as likely not to receive welfare and social services, and four times more likely to earn a higher annual income. In addition, people without Pre-K are twice as likely to be arrested by the time they are 27 years old.

A school system where children are five and six years old when they enroll has not acted decisively on brain development research, which tells us that the brain is growing to 80 percent of its adult size and that vital learning is taking place before a child even reaches five years old. For too long, Pre-K has been seen as a worthy thing to do but not as an absolute necessity. Today, we know better. Pre-K can transform children’s lives, resulting in everything from improved vocabulary to improved school attendance to higher graduation rates.

The American Dream is the bedrock belief that we live in a country where anyone can succeed. That dream has been possible because America led the world in education for 150 years, but today, there are troubling signs that we are lagging on international rankings of educational achievement. At a time when human capital determines which communities succeed and which do not, we are called on to reaffirm our commitment to education as a national value and it must include becoming a world leader in Pre-K.

There is no greater responsibility that we have as a community than to give every child a fair start in life, regardless of where he lives or how much his family earns. That’s what Pre-K is all about, because it produces the magic that occurs when we give children their best opportunities for the cognitive development that prepares them for what lies ahead in their lives.

That’s why we can’t think of a smarter investment for Memphis and Shelby County than Pre-K.

This was previously posted as The Urban Child Institute’s Perceptions commentary.  You can register to receive this and other information from The Institute by clicking here.