We’re talking to someone who works in several dozen U.S. cities every year, and the comments are a cold dose of reality: “This is an exciting time in Memphis, but when you go to other cities, you realize how far behind we really are.”

The comment is still reverberating as I’m thinking about a panel about school funding that I’m on last Thursday night.  It’s sponsored by Stand for Children, Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, and National Civil Rights Museum MLK50 and moderated by our friend, Cardell Orrin, Memphis Director for Stand for Children and an unrelenting advocate for what is right for Memphis.  It’s the second session in the Memphis Educational Equity Learning Series: Investing in Our Children – School Funding in Memphis and Shelby County.

If the earlier conversation hadn’t been sobering enough, a new study by the Economic Innovation Group confirmed it.  The study concluded that Memphis is the sixth most distressed city among the 100 largest cities in the U.S. That’s #6 of 100 cities, and if that isn’t disturbing enough, the ranking is worse than the previous study just a year ago when Memphis was ninth.

With 100 being the worst distress score, Memphis has 96.0 and two zip codes – 38126 and 38108 score more than 99.  The seven components used to create the distress score and Memphis data – the measure of a given area’s economic well-being relative to its peers – are percent of population without high school degree (16.3%), housing vacancy rate (15.6%), adults not working (32.5%), poverty rate (27.6%), median income ratio (80.6%), jobs growth (1.3%), and change in the number of businesses (-2.7%)

More Pressure Needed

The headline on the New York Times article about last year’s rankings was “Poor Areas Have Missed Out On Boons of Recovery.”  It’s all a reminder that no city in the U.S. took longer to recover to its pre-Recession levels than Memphis and that wasn’t expected to happen until the last quarter of 2017 – in other words, right now.

It’s also a reminder that African American poverty in Memphis increased over a year ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 30.1% to 32.3%, while the poverty rate for whites and Latinos declined.  The poverty rate for children climbed from 43% to 44.7%.

All of this makes the Memphis Educational Equity Learning Series have a greater sense of urgency.  After all, the education of our children touches every part of Memphis, and Memphis’ distress stems directly from not funding education adequately or paying teachers a salary that reflects their value to our community.

School funding does not exist in a vacuum.  Today, there is less pressure for more funding as a result of an economy that over-relies on low-wage, low-skill jobs and in a city where the children in its public schools are often seen as problems than as competitive advantages.

Schools Develop Talent

Changes in school funding by Shelby County Government and the grudging annual budget hearings on school spending are proof positive that our talk about how important our children are is not backed up by actions motivated by a sufficient commitment to funding their education.

We talk day after day about attracting and retaining talent, and it is striking how often these conversations ignore students in Shelby County Schools’ classrooms.  After all, if the schools are about anything, it is talent development.

Instead of setting our primary objective as getting more students graduated with high school degrees, it’s really about creating the talent to make our economy more successful and attract better paying jobs.

If it doesn’t make sense fundamentally, consider this: when compared to many other cities, Memphis has a bulge in children.  Twenty-six percent of the city’s population is younger than 18 years old, and Memphis’ 26% compares to 21.7% in Nashville, 22.2% in Austin, 21.5% in Baltimore, and 21.1% in St. Louis.

In other words, while Memphis and Nashville have roughly the same population, Memphis has 26,500 more children.  While other cities are fighting for talent, it is sitting in our classrooms today, but it requires us to see our schools’ purpose as talent development and to fund it as the primary driver of the Memphis economy that it is.

What Are We Willing To Pay?

We need civic and business pressure to push for higher funding expectations stemming from seeing these students as our path toward an economy known for its prosperity, opportunity, and equity.  Instead, with an economy with too many low-wage jobs, there’s an acceptance of current funding to produce the workers who will fill those jobs.

Just think: 67% of the jobs in the Memphis metropolitan area do not need a college degree.  It’s no wonder that Memphis has the worst odds of any city in the continental United States for a child born into the bottom 20% to move to the top 20%.  The chances of doing it: a mere 2.6%.

Because of all of this, the questions facing us:

1) Are we willing to pay what it takes to do better?

2) What would we be willing to pay to create the kind of talent that we need to attract a company like Amazon?

3) What would we be willing to pay to create an economy that captures the $21 billion economic opportunity that comes from closing the income gap between whites and people of color?

4) What would we be willing to break the link between race and poverty, knowing that by 2040, the Memphis MSA will be 66% people of color?

Schools Are Not A Special Interest

I say all that to say this – school funding is routinely treated as a special interest or as an isolated public purpose rather than as an investment in talent and the economic future of Memphis.  We see it when Shelby County Government made changes in its budgeting process that cost schools tens of millions of dollars in operating money.

One, 10 years ago, county government changed the budget so that rather than giving schools a dedicated amount of the total county property taxes – generally, about $2.02, it shifted to a fixed amount, which denied the school system the yearly growth in the property taxes and flatlined county funding for six years.  By the time it did increase school funding, it was by 8%.  The county property taxes had grown 11%.

Two, county government this year shifted three cents of the property rate from education into the operating budgets of county departments.

Three, county government took the revenues from the 25% of the PILOTs that are not waived and although they were intended to go to schools operating budgets, they were used to pay debt service on schools.

Four, county government allows PILOTs to waive $10-15 million a year in taxes that would otherwise go to schools.

More Than Incremental Progress

All of this suggests that as a community, we are not serious enough about school funding.  That said, it is not Shelby County Schools along that is paying the price.  Rather, it’s the entire community – from an underperforming economy.

As long as the Memphis MSA ranks #96 among the 130 largest metro areas for the percentage of population with at least a four-year college degree, it will remain high on the distressed city list with two-thirds of all zip codes classified as in distress.

And as long as that is the case, we can be excited about our momentum but it’s because we are comparing where we are today to where we were in the past.  When compared to other cities, we are running in place, and the best way to win the race is to provide whatever level of funding is needed to produce the brand of talent that improves our economy long-term and in a way so fundamental that it can transform the future.


Distress Score by Zip Codes in Memphis (unless noted) – 100 is highest score:
99.6 – 38126
99.5 – 38108
98.5 – 38114
97.4 – 38106
95.9 – 38109
95.9 – 38127
95.4 – 38116
94.3 – 38118
93.3 – 38128
92.5 – 38107
91.2 – 38122
89.6 – 38111
85.0 – 38115
65.1 – 38104
62.2 – 38053 (Millington)
61.5 – 38134
60.7 – Shelby County as a whole
56.3 – 38103
30.4 – 38141
29.8 – 38119
25.8 – 38125
16.9 – 38133
16.4 – 38117
14.2 – 38135 (Bartlett)
9.8 – 38028 (Eads)
5.2 – 38139 (Germantown)
3.7 – 38016
3.4 – 38017 (Collierville)
3.3 – 38002 (Lakeland)
3.2 – 38138 (Germantown)

Distress Scores by Congressional Districts:
97.7 – District 9
61.5 – District 8
49.8 – District 7

Top 10 Cities with Highest Distress Scores:
100 – Cleveland
98.8 – Newark
98.3 – Buffalo
97.7 – Detroit
96.7 – Toledo
96.0 – Memphis
94.8 – Milwaukee
94.6 – Stockton
93.9 – Philadelphia
92.6 – Tucson


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