Philly’s False Promise Of Universal Pre-K

REUTERS/Mark Makela

Jerry Rogers Founder, Six Degrees Project
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The Democratic mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney, wants to add 10,000 pre-Kindergarten seats to the city’s public schools by 2020, contingent on the appropriation of sufficient funding. However, the city is overtaxed, and there aren’t many new revenue streams to tap.

Mayor Kenney’s solution is to impose a beverage tax – 3 cents per ounce – on the residents of his city. At a press conference announcing the massive tax, Mayor Kenney said, “this is not personal toward Big Soda, but there’s a lot of money being made off the backs of poor people.”

Who does the mayor think will be paying the tax? Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, said that Kenney’s tax “unfairly hits poor people.”

Poor families spend more of their income on consumer goods. They may not have access to larger supermarkets that offer a wider variety of less expensive options. Or they may not own a car allowing them to travel outside the city for their grocery shopping. Or they may not have access to safe, reliable public transportation.

Ironically, it’s Mayor Kenney who will be guilty of “making money” off the backs of poor people. His arbitrary, regressive proposal targets the poorest residents of Philadelphia. The reality is, if you have enough money, there will be plenty of ways to avoid the Kenney tax.

Former Governor Rendell has also expressed doubt that the soda tax will raise the requisite resources to fund a universal pre-K program. Mayor Kenney expects to raise $400 million over five years. However, in an interview with 1210 WPHT Philadelphia, Rendell said that the Kenney plan “wouldn’t generate the tax we need for full-day kindergarten.”

One of the ironclad rules of basic economics says: If you want less of something, tax it. Besides, we’ve seen such “lock box” attempts fail in the past. Politicians make promises, but the money ends up in the general fund or the promised level of resources never materialize.

Kenney’s scheme of taxing poor families will only be setting Philly up for failure. The mayor’s proposal, as it is today, is a false promise. And, Philadelphia should not put its most vulnerable citizens at risk over a politician’s false promise of universal pre-K.

Some money will be collected, albeit not enough to fully fund pre-K, off the backs of Philadelphia’s poorest residents. Consequently, the mayor will be forced to raise taxes elsewhere — property taxes, sales taxes, additional arbitrary taxes on other segments of Philly’s economy. Jobs will flee, and Philly’s poorest will suffer the most. What’s more, the soda tax will have robbed many families of precious dollars from their household budgets. Fewer jobs and less income will mean many parents will spend less time with their children. Educational experts across the ideological spectrum agree that parents and families — grandparents, aunts and uncles — are the first and best teachers for young children.

Universal pre-K is not a panacea. In a recent piece for U.S News & World Report, Katherine Stevens, Ph.D. — a research fellow who leads the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) early-childhood program — writes that “Pre-K can benefit many children.” She explains that “variation in pre-K quality can be huge: between different states, different cities, different programs within a city and even different classrooms within a single program.” Dr. Stevens continues by clarifying “there’s nothing inherently special about pre-K any more than there is about Kindergarten or fourth grade. Good pre-K will benefit children; mediocre or bad pre-K won’t.”

Dr. Steven’s affirms, “beginning at birth, children rapidly and continuously learn from whomever they’re with, wherever they are, which is largely at home and in child care. Their healthy development depends entirely on the quality of those environments, because what really matters are children’s hour-to-hour, day-to-day experiences starting in the first months of life. If we really want to help kids, we have to improve the quality of home environments and child care, not just increase the number of 4-year-olds attending public school.”

The great irony is that Kenney’s tax will only make matters worse for Philly’s children while doing little to close the achievement gap. Children will not grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level; they will not graduate high school, hold a job, or form stable families of their own. Why? Because Mayor Kenney’s tax burden will drain from families the earnings that would be better spent on quality child care, and cheat them out of the quality time devoted to their children.

Universal pre-K can be a worthy goal. However, it must be done right, not on the backs of Philly’s poorest families.