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At What Price Soda Tax?

A recent TV investigative report of the city’s pre-K initiative raises questions about just what it means to be progressive in Philadelphia

A recent TV investigative report of the city’s pre-K initiative raises questions about just what it means to be progressive in Philadelphia

Last week, Chad Pradelli of Channel 6 Action News aired a disturbing investigative report. Turns out that fully one-fourth of all those pre-K programs the much-debated soda tax was meant to fund had missing or incomplete FBI, state police or child abuse clearances in recent years. One provider, Greater Hope Christian Academy in Southwest Philadelphia, was cited 34 times in June by the Department of Human Services for violations that included the absence of FBI clearances, non-compliance with mandatory tuberculosis testing, and lack of verification of staff childcare experience.

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And that doesn’t even get to the three pre-K centers that owe hefty real estate back tax bills.

It all sounds pretty serious, no? Something that you’d hope our Mayor would vow to fix once called to his attention? Guess again. Mayor Kenney appears to still be stuck in campaign mode, more concerned about waging a political fight—defending the soda tax —than in reassuring us that his administration can govern competently. As disturbing as Pradelli’s report is, what may be more troubling is Kenney’s reaction to it, and what it says about our state of leadership. Check it out:

That’s right, the Mayor’s instinct when confronted by the data that one in four of the new city-sanctioned pre-K providers lack evidence of proper child abuse screening is to quote that noted urban policy expert…Allen Iverson: “We talking ‘bout practice.

The Mayor’s cavalier dismissal of this issue is particularly vexing, given that, just earlier this month, a Bella Vista child care center was raided and its owner charged with sexually assaulting two children. And given that Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown responded to the Channel 6 report by calling for Council hearings to look into just how the pre-K program is being run.  

That’s right, the Mayor’s instinct when confronted by the data that one in four of the new city-sanctioned pre-K providers lack evidence of proper child abuse screening is to quote that noted urban policy expert…Allen Iverson: “We talking ‘bout practice.

Every study I’ve seen concludes that pre-K is a good thing. But the Mayor conflates concern over how pre-K is implemented with opposition to the soda tax, and he seems awfully defensive as a result. His allegiance seems to be to the tax, as opposed to the policy it was meant to fund. And his reaction, in its annoyance and vilification of those who dare ask questions—complete with allegations of “fake news”—seems decidedly Trump-like. 

I was initially agnostic about the soda tax and I remain convinced of the efficacy of pre-K—if it’s competently implemented. But the Mayor’s constant knee-jerk reactions in defense of all things soda tax just might lead people to start asking: Just what does it mean to be a progressive in Philadelphia these days?

Let’s look at that. In June, when The Pennsylvania Senate Local Government Committee planned to hold a hearing in City Council about the economic impact of the soda tax, Councilwoman Helen Gym, also conflating questions about the tax with opposition to pre-K, sent out an invitation for people to show up and “protect Pre-K”: “The soda industry and their Harrisburg allies are continuing their endless assault on Pre-K for Philly kids,” she wrote.

The hearing was hijacked by pro-soda tax protesters, with the not-so-tacit support of the administration, thereby preventing neighborhood bodega owners and unionized grocery store employees from testifying about how the tax had adversely affected their businesses and lives. Aren’t progressives supposed to be for those constituencies, rather than silencing them?

Now comes the Channel 6 report, in which the Mayor—again seeing questions about pre-K implementation as an existential threat to his tax—doesn’t take the side of the every day Philadelphia mom and dad who send their kids off to pre-K. To them, child care centers failing to file FBI background checks and child abuse clearances isn’t just about “paperwork.” (If it were all just paperwork, why do we require background checks at all?) If you’re not on the side of moms sending their kids off to city-funded pre-K centers, and if you’re silencing bodega owners and union workers, and if you’re demonizing folks like Jeff Brown, the owner of inner city ShopRite and Fresh Grocers that are committed to eradicating food deserts…just what kind of progressive are you?

Earlier this week, The Daily News editorial board weighed in with an endorsement of Kenney’s approach. Noting that City Controller Alan Butkovitz announced last week that he’d be auditing the city’s expanded pre-K program, the Daily News labeled Butkovitz “a Big Soda guy” and argued that the city’s pre-K website and Great Philly Schools provide enough information to gauge the quality of pre-K providers, ignoring the fact that neither site contained the information regarding background checks that Channel 6 ultimately uncovered. “Big Soda has been flummoxed by the fact that a lot of the soda tax money is going to expand pre-kindergarten for needy children,” the editorial read. “…A critical audit from the controller would enable the well-financed and very loud opposition to say: It’s not helping kids! It’s being wasted!”

It sure would be refreshing for mayor and media alike to move beyond name-calling and petty politics and focus on making government work for those who actually pay the taxes they keep shouting about.

Look, I get it, this is Philly, so everything is political. But even if Butkovitz is a pawn of Big Soda, shouldn’t we—and shouldn’t the mayor—welcome more disclosure, and not less? Isn’t this a town that needs more audits? Isn’t it possible to be pro pre-K and yet be concerned about how it’s implemented—and funded?

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the disingenuous nature of the soda tax debate. It’s time to stop campaigning and start governing. It sure would be refreshing for mayor and media alike to move beyond name-calling and petty politics and focus on making government work for those who actually pay the taxes they keep shouting about.

Header Photo: Flickr

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