Cross section of law enforcement, education leaders ask for more Pre-K priority in Tennessee as crime reduction tool


MEMPHIS, Tenn. – ( – Tuesday, state lawmakers, law enforcement, and teachers made a common plea: invest more in Pre-K in Tennessee, and those students will commit less crime when they get older.

The request follows the latest national study tying success in school early to less crime later. That’s where early childhood academies come into play, to reverse that trend.

With an open book and an open mind Tuesday, Pre-K students at Porter-Leath Early Childhood Academy in south Memphis are eager to learn. It’s this early immersion in the classroom, law enforcement leaders said, that makes these young students far less likely to end up in a squad car or jail cell later in life.

“We’ve known for a long while that there’s a connection between early childhood education and crime avoidance,” Memphis Police Director Mike Rallings said.

But there’s a rub. A new study showed a nearly $18,000 pay gap between Tennessee voluntary Pre-K and kindergarten teachers, affecting the early childhood teacher recruitment pool.

“You get what you pay for, and we have to –as a state– commit to high quality teachers, paying them for what they are worth,” Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said.

The youth crime problem in Shelby County isn’t slowing down, it’s intensifying. Crime statistics released last month showed a nearly 59% spike year-to-year in major violent charges against juveniles. Days after that data release, Memphis Police charged a 12-year-old with attempted carjacking at an east Memphis Kroger.

“Young people having access to guns versus books or playgrounds is a major problem,” Director Rallings said.

“We are trying to stop these kids before they get incarcerated with us, we are trying to say to the community, invest in our children now,” Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner said.

State lawmakers at Tuesday’s event said they’ll make a strong push in next year’s legislative session to boost the overall budget for Pre-K in Tennessee.

Governor Bill Lee is expected to lay out some of his budget priorities in next year’s State of the State Address.

Studies also show Pre-K led to higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates.

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