Standing by beverage tax and with pre-K, community schools, and Rebuild

Mayor Kenney and Council President Darrell Clarke during a news conference at City Hall.

 

In June 2016, after nearly four months of vigorous debate, City Council passed the Philadelphia Beverage Tax and it was signed into law. The tax was enacted to fund free, quality preschool education for children; expand community schools in high-needs neighborhoods; and Rebuild, a $500 million capital improvement program for the city’s parks, recreational centers, and libraries. While several funding alternatives were proposed and considered, an overwhelming majority of  Council determined that a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages was the broadest, fairest funding option. We stand by our choice.

The city has already begun to reap some of the intended benefits of the tax. Of the more than 2,000 children who enrolled in PHLpreK between January and today, the average family income was $31,776 annually. By enrolling their children in a free, safe, and stable child-care environment, many parents have been able to return to work and their children are now much more likely to graduate from high school and find a living-wage job.

Additionally, our investments have created 250 new, living-wage jobs through the PHLpreK program just since January, and allowed pre-K providers to increase wages for current staff. More than 75 percent of the city’s pre-K providers are women- or minority-owned businesses. Since the program’s launch in January, 19 participating pre-K providers have earned new, high-quality scores in the state’s STARS program, improving the quality of education for all the children in their care, not just those in PHLpreK-funded seats.

The new community schools program is equally impactful. Community schools are neighborhood public schools that become community centers with help from a dedicated coordinator and strategic partnerships with the city, and business, and nonprofit partners. More than 70 percent of our 6,000 community school students live at or below the poverty line. Targeted services in schools address health, economic stability, and basic needs, supporting youth and community development. To date, Philadelphians have received from our 11 community schools 7,000 pounds of food, and 1,180 items of clothing. Coordinators created 120 summer job and career exposure experiences for students, and over the summer 75 neighborhood residents gained employment through a training hosted by community schools.

Over the next five years, these programs will grow to support 6,500 pre-K students annually and 25 community schools, and the benefits will only multiply.  During this time the city will also launch the third program funded by the beverage tax, Rebuild, which will improve 150 to 200 neighborhood parks, libraries, recreation centers, and playgrounds. These improvements are also expected to promote educational opportunities for children, support healthy lifestyles for all, improve public safety in our shared spaces, and create jobs. Rebuild’s $500 million investment will also connect underemployed Philadelphians, many from communities that have suffered from historical discrimination, with jobs and access to lifelong, family-sustaining careers.

The loss of funding for these programs would unfairly set back children already benefiting and those on track to participate. This tax went through a lengthy, public debate before it was passed. All of the arguments being aired by some of our colleagues in Harrisburg and by the beverage industry in a costly advertising and lobbying campaign were already carefully considered for months and weighed against the alternatives. It was not a decision we made lightly. We listened to those arguments and met with and heard the personal stories of many people who opposed the tax for four months before we made our decision, and our doors continue to be open for those wanting to discuss concerns.

But we’d like to make one thing clear: It has been a year and half since the tax passed and it has funded programs benefiting thousands of Philadelphia families. We will not repeal this tax and turn our backs on them.

Jim Kenney is mayor of Philadelphia. james.kenney@phila.gov
Darrell Clarke is president of City Council. Darrell.clarke@phila.gov