Jones: Don't shortchange the kids when it comes to the beverage tax

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Councilman David Oh says last-minute changes to legislation happens often in Philadelphia politics.

TOO OFTEN presented as perpetually needy, poor children are frequently trotted out as props for ad campaigns.

Their upturned faces, staring out from TV screens, can make the most hardened among us want to lend a hand to the needy, to the helpless, to the children.

In watching the contentious debate over the 1.5-cents-per ounce beverage tax that City Council is poised to pass on Thursday, I saw that scenario play out yet again. As images of children filled our TV screens, we were led to believe that the tax would fund universal pre-kindergarten for Philadelphia's kids.

Based on interviews with Council members and members of Mayor Kenney's staff, I now know that the pre-kindergarten program is not universal. It's more like a pilot program that will serve about 2,000 children the first year. And while the Kenney administration hopes to ramp it up to something that could serve about 6,500 children by 2021, the children whose smiling faces stared out at us from advertisements are not the only focus.

The beverage tax - which now includes diet drinks, as well as sugar-sweetened beverages - will fund not only pre-K for a portion of the city's 17,000 eligible children. It also will help to refurbish parks and recreation centers across the city, pay some employee disability benefits, cover some costs for the DA's office to retry juvenile lifers, support arts and culture programs, and bolster the city's fund balance.

The part about bolstering the city's fund balance was sprung on Council members only hours before a crucial committee vote last week, but Councilman David Oh, an opponent of the tax, says that last-minute revelations and shifting numbers are par for the course when it comes to this kind of legislation.

"I'm not besmirching the mayor, but I am saying that it is historic in Philadelphia that this is the process," Oh told me in an interview. "No actual accounting. If they gave me a number right now, that could change next week. There's no way to actually secure that (beverage tax) money for that purpose."

Once the money is in the kitty, Oh said, it could be repurposed for something other than pre-kindergarten.

I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a concern. But even more pressing than the political sleight of hand that gave us the last-minute fund-balance revelation is this: How will the beverage tax and its projected $91 million in annual revenue benefit those poor children whose smiling faces made us believe?

Mayoral spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said in a statement: "The tax will allow the City to significantly expand access to quality, affordable pre-K across Philadelphia, especially in areas of high need. The 6,500 pre-K seats will be targeted towards the thousands of children who already qualify for federal or state subsidies but sit on waitlists because the City has previously done nothing to help them. Nearly 75 percent of Philadelphia's three- and four-year-olds qualify for state or federal pre-k assistance."

That's laudable, but it's not universal, given the fact that more than twice as many children as the program will eventually serve are qualified for pre-kindergarten and don't attend.

Hitt says the mayor never pitched the beverage tax as a way to fund universal pre-kindergarten. But it's hard to ignore the fact that the commercials for the tax use words such as "citywide pre-K." That made us believe that his program would serve every child who needs it.

Even in five years, when the mayor hopes state and federal subsidies will provide an additional 3,500 pre-kindergarten seats in Philadelphia, about 7,000 kids will still be left out.

But there are other concerns around the money from the beverage tax. Namely, who will get the contracts and jobs created by the pre-kindergarten programs?

"I think that our concern is that the early stages where these pre-K slots are provided as a result of new revenues, that all of these slots go to those corporate pre-kindergarten providers," Council President Darrell Clarke told me in an interview.

The mayor's Office of Education will seek to address that by providing funding and assistance to neighborhood providers who need help to upgrade their services to quality pre-K.

But this is uncharted territory. Running what amounts to a parallel education system that might or might not be administered in part by the School District could set up a slush fund of sorts that could fund lucrative insider contracts. Or it could create a precedent for childhood success in some of our most challenged communities.

I remain skeptical, but also hopeful that our kids will win the day.

Since the children been the face of all this, they deserve at least that much.

Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).

sj@solomonjones.com

@solomonjones1

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