Representative Mark White loves Memphis. The Republican State House member said it is not an attitude shared by his colleagues in Nashville, however, speaking at last night’s Midtown Republican Club meeting. “Much of the legislature wishes we were in Arkansas,” he said. “They think we are backwards. It’s an attitude that’s starting to change. The problems didn’t happen overnight and won’t be fixed overnight,” White admitted.
“But we have good people here and are the second most philanthropic after Salt Lake City. We have good things happening. We have St. Jude, the Crosstown development and Shelby Farms. We’re sitting on gold right now, but we need a good educated workforce.”
And education has been where Rep. White has concentrated most of his efforts. He chairs the Education Committee, which he says tackles planning, curriculum and programming. One area in particular, pre-K, has gotten his attention.
“It’s important to Memphis,” he said, “but we don’t want to waste money on babysitting. There has to be a higher standard for pre-K dollars when you apply.
“The governor (Haslam) has put half a billion new dollars in education since he took office. Memphis is now getting known as ‘teacher town’ because we’re big proponents of teacher competition. We now have charter schools, private, innovation schools and achievement schools that are not under any local board. They have their own teachers and they can do whatever they want – school for 24 hours, etc.
“Our schools were in the bottom, but now we are the fastest improving state in the nation in education.” White says we know this because of NAPE scores. “We test 8th graders and 4th graders. In fourth grade math we’re now 25th; in eighth grade we were 47 and 48 and now we’re in the mid 30s.
“We still have a long way to go, but we’re going in the right direction. Only 17% in Memphis are ready for college. 83% require remedial courses. There are plenty of jobs in this town, but we’re not able to fill positions with these students. We have 130,000 dropouts in Memphis not qualified for jobs.”
White says a lot of the problem is beyond the scope of government remedy. “Many of us learned from osmosis in our homes and when we got to school we were ready. For many of our students there really is no home. No one talks to them. They know maybe a thousand words, most of them four letter.” White has always been keenly aware of the cost of lack of fathers in the home, even having written a book about it.
White finds hope in St. Jude’s promise of investing 70 billion in Memphis in the next seven years. He also touts U of M’s new logistics and research center. Both should have a positive impact on education and the city.
He’ll be back in the legislature in January, working again on education.