The Right Campaign for Memphis -- About Our Youngest Children

We are now officially in the campaign season for the City of Memphis. We hope that our children, especially the youngest ones, aren’t overlooked as they often are in the blizzard of questionnaires sent to candidates by politically active groups and in the campaign speeches by candidates.

It’s said that elections are always about the future.  Because of it, there’s no better time to engage in a communitywide conversation about the youngest Memphians. So, here are the questions we’d ask if we were mailing questionnaires: What will you promise to do to give every child in Memphis his best start in life? What will you do to invest public funds where they produce the most dramatic results – in the first three years of children’s lives?

There’s little doubt that during the campaign, we’ll hear a lot about issues that affect our children – schools, for one.  But as often happens, it focuses on revenue sources, funding formulas, and operational structures. There’s not much discussion about the kids themselves, particularly what our city must do in the first three years of children’s lives to have every child ready for school.

One candidate who has taken a stand is Mayor A C Wharton. In a recent interview in the Tri-State Defender with publisher Bernal Smith II, Mayor Wharton made this vow: if the City of Memphis’ obligation to fund Memphis City Schools ends as a result of our two schools systems, he will propose that half of it - $39 million – is spent on pre-school children.

“I fervently believe city government has a major role in the broader education process, meaning investing in early childhood education. I think the City of Memphis could plow (the money) into support of family issues like job readiness, rehabilitation, literary, health care, etc. Every child would have access to an accredited day care center, no more leaving the babies with sister’s crackhead boy friend. Just think what it would do to set a new generation on a stronger educational path.

“We have one of the lowest enrollment rates in Head Start relative to the number of children that are eligible. Every child ought to have a good Head Start experience or the equivalent. This process starts actually with the moms before birth to support proper brain development even in the womb. The mistake we’ve made is that we’re too agency-oriented and not focused on the universal responsibility of the entire community to make sure our children are nurtured with the best opportunities for success.”

We appreciate Mayor Wharton shining the spotlight where it belongs.  Memphis has 55,253 children under the age of five. That’s more than the entire population of Bartlett – Tennessee’s 10th largest city – and our research is unequivocal:  Early Head Start is a life changer.  It’s a successful program providing child development services for low-income pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers up to the age of three. Unfortunately, for every child in Early Head Start, there are 31 others who should be attending but there is not enough money to expand the program so they can.  

Recently, we presented Mayor Wharton with our 2011 Data Book, the definitive information on the state of children in Memphis and Shelby County. The Data Book’s Executive Summary includes a chart showing that in the first three years of life when children’s brains are growing to 80% of its adult size, we spend very little to prepare them to succeed in school.

We know what works. Research and clinical trials are clear. All we need as a community is the political will to get it done. Mayor Wharton has made his pledge to early childhood development.  We will be listening – and hope you will be too – to hear if other candidates do the same.  

These are our Perceptions from The Urban Child Institute.

We hope you will learn more about brain development and early childhood issues by reading the 2011 Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County.  Email any questions to