06/17/2016

Philly soft drink tax will bring historic investment

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Philadelphia is the first major American city to approve a tax on soft drinks—and schools, students and neighborhoods are the better for it.

The City Council on June 16 approved Mayor Jim Kenney's plan to expand pre-K services and community schools through a 1.5-cent-per-ounce soft drink tax. The proposal rolled to victory in a decisive 13-4 council vote, buoyed by strong support from members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and from the leadership of council President Darrell Clarke. It is projected to generate more than $400 million over five years, funding that will extend preschool to families across Philadelphia and expand community schools. Revenues also will benefit parks, recreation centers and libraries across the city.

The vote is a victory "for the programs our children and communities so richly deserve," said PFT President Jerry Jordan, who is also an AFT vice president. Much of the groundwork that went into support for the measure came in May and June, Jordan said, when more than 200 information pickets were held at schools across the city. Educators used these sessions to provide information to the community, encourage parents to engage with elected officials, and emphasize the significance of the programs that our children deserve.

"PFT has been in favor of Mayor Kenney's sugary drink proposal since its inception, and never doubted that the end result of discussion and debates within the City Council would result in a measure that makes great progress toward funding essential programs," Jordan said. "PFT members have been at the forefront of talking with our elected officials and the public about the benefits of pre-K and community schools, [and] we look forward to engaging with council and the mayor to ensure the implementation of pre-K and community schools is as effective as possible."

"Thanks to the tireless advocacy of educators, parents, rec center volunteers and so many others, Philadelphia made a historic investment in our neighborhoods and in our education system," Kenney said after the vote. "I commend City Council for working with these community leaders to make quality, affordable pre-K, community schools and systemic improvements to parks, rec centers and libraries a reality."

"Historic" is how Clarke described the vote for the budget package containing the soft drink tax, and the council president expressed hope that the action would spark momentum behind unfinished challenges facing Philadelphia. Chief among them is "a woefully underfunded school district" and the need for the state General Assembly to provide "sufficient funding for all public schools" across Pennsylvania. "I also continue to call on the School District of Philadelphia and the School Reform Commission to come back to the bargaining table. Philadelphia public school educators deserve both a raise and a fair contract."

The widely watched council vote took on national significance, and several national outlets predicted that it could generate momentum behind efforts in other jurisdictions to support essential public services.

[Staff and news reports]