This week, children throughout Philadelphia returned from summer vacation to find their schools in worse shape than when they left. Unfortunately, our legislators in Harrisburg decided to extend their own summer vacation instead of dealing with the school district’s funding crisis, leaving for home instead of ensuring Philadelphia schools opened on time and fully staffed.
Late last month, thanks to the legislature’s inability to approve a $2-per-pack cigarette tax for the city, the School District of Philadelphia announced they were eliminating 81 positions. According to the Inquirer, “There will be fewer police officers in schools…and buildings will be cleaned less often. If lawmakers do not pass the cigarette tax, [Superintendent William] Hite said, he would be forced to lay off more than 1,000 more employees, including teachers.” It’s important to note that closing the districts’ $81 million deficit—$49 million of which would be filled by the cigarette tax—would just get things back to where they were last year.
It would be cynical to claim that the same legislature that passed the second largest tax hike in state history in November to pay for a transportation bill would drag their feet on the cigarette tax because it helped Philadelphia while doing nothing for them. But it wouldn’t be wrong. The Inquirer reported last month that, “two key Republican legislators from York – Majority Whip Stan Saylor and Seth Grove – [were] complaining that the legislature was effectively handing Philadelphia [revenue], while failing to do anything to assist other school districts. Grove said that a cigarette-tax proposal that addresses only Philadelphia schools ‘leaves a bad taste in my mouth.’” So the reason that the legislators are hanging our children out to dry is that they don’t want to help Philadelphia without getting something in return. How did we get to the point where helping children is viewed negatively when their parents don’t vote for you?
The leadership in Harrisburg claims that they will deal with Philadelphia’s funding problem when they get back from vacation. Knowing Philadelphia’s deadline for funding was about to hit, they canceled voting on the cigarette tax to start their summer break earlier. They are scheduled to return on September 15th for six days in September, five in October and one in November before taking their winter vacation until January. In Philadelphia, school starts, understaffed and underfunded, on September 8th. When it comes to the case of the cigarette tax, too little, too late is the best we can hope for.