First came the soda tax. We were told over and over again that it was only for full-calorie drinks, and that anybody who wanted to avoid it – including the poor, who proportionally pay the most of any consumption tax – could just switch to diet drinks or water. Then, at the eleventh hour, the tax was expanded to include diet beverages as well. We were told the tax was “for the kids,” for pre-K and recreation centers. At the last minute, Mayor Kenney, with an assist from Finance Director Rob Dubow, revealed that $41 million of the proceeds would go to the Mayor’s General Fund. All of those children they trucked in for “read-ins” at City Hall were unwittingly supporting the city’s spiraling pension costs and opaque city contracts.
And now we find out what Mayor Kenney plans to do with the money designated for pre-K seats. The only bidder to administer the program – apparently, the city lacks the “specialized financing and regulation” to deal with 3-year-olds – has deep ties to the mayor and his allies that couldn’t be more brazen.
The boards of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition and the Philadelphia Health Management Corporation – the joint venture formed to control the soda tax revenue – reads like a who’s who of city Democrats: former councilmen, current judges, city administrators and state legislators. The most prominent of these is Dwight Evans, the Democratic state Rep. likely to replace convicted former Congressman Chaka Fattah in the 2nd Congressional District this November. Evans’ support for Kenney put Kenney over the edge in the 2015 Democratic mayoral primary, so the mayor owes him a debt – to be paid with taxpayer money, naturally. An obvious quid pro quo, that, to quote School Reform Commissioner Bill Green, “speaks for itself.”
Besides serving as a steering committee to support the Democratic establishment with taxpayer funds, the UAC is most notable for a 2012 state Inspector General’s report that blasted the organization, and Evans, for misusing more than $1.5 million in state grants over six years. This level of corruption – a disqualifier elsewhere in the country – evidently serves as an excellent credential to manage the education of Philly schoolchildren.
While the mayor and his allies divvy up taxpayer dollars, key questions on the pre-K program are being ignored. Will it be truly universal, as the mayor has pledged, meaning that taxpayers are set to subsidize high-income families as well as poor ones? Are parochial Catholic, Jewish and Muslim pre-K providers barred from entry? And, when the funding runs dry – and it will run dry, because pre-K is funded by soda revenues that are set to fall as a result of people avoiding the tax – what or who is going to fill the funding gap? Whatever your position on pre-K, the question marks surrounding the mayor’s new program deserve clear answers.
Finally, and most urgently: What are we going to do about our existing public schools? The mayor and his allies can pay whatever lip service they want to “outcomes” for city children. But if the options for parents whose kids outgrow pre-K is a failed city public school or moving to the suburbs, there won’t be any improvement in the lives of Philadelphians.
You’ve heard nothing about improving the education system for children after pre-K because the mayor has no plan. Donors and teachers union allies have been in the way of school choice at every turn. Merit pay for our best-performing teachers – and dismissal for those that show up only for a paycheck – is such an obvious common-sense measure that it’s a non-starter for the mayor and City Council. It’s a scandal that the very politicians who claim to represent the poorest Philadelphians fight tooth-and-nail against any effort to reform our failed education system.
If the mayor really wants to help kids in the city, he should take seriously the school system they’ll be entering after they leave pre-K. He doesn’t – and he won’t.
Democrats talk a lot about redistribution of wealth. With the soda tax revenue set to line the pockets of the very people who passed it, voters see exactly what that means. The status quo in Philadelphia continues: from your pocketbook into theirs.
Joe DeFelice is chairman of the Philadelphia Republican Party