Grading Pa. lawmakers and Philly City Council

    Education advocates have released a report card on the performance of Philadelphia City Council and the Pennsylvania General Assembly. In this budgetary climate, there’s no such thing as an “easy” A.

    They’re the kind of report cards kids might hide in the bottom of their lockers.

    The advocates, led by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, gave City Council a C-minus, saying “council exhibits potential and desire to help, but fails to act on viable solutions.”

    Chief among its “incomplete assignments,” Council failed, the advocates said, to finalize a 1 percent sales tax increase that would raise $120 million in recurring annual funding.

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    Other incompletes included the Use and Occupancy and Liquor By the Drink taxes, and failing to eliminate the 10-year property tax abatement.

    The state assembly received a D, the advocates said, for not implementing an equitable funding formula and for not enacting the increased tax on cigarettes that City Council authorized.

    Faced with a $304 million budget deficit, the Philadelphia School District requested a combined total of $180 million from City Council and the General Assembly. The district received $67 million from Council. The General Assembly sent $47.9 million – of that, $45 million came to the state from a debt forgiven by the federal government.

    “We were generous in giving the D,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of PCCY. [Lawmakers] showed lack of initiative, they struggled to prioritize education as an issue, and they refused to work collectively in the best interests of children.”

    State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, the minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, took Cooper’s critique a step further.

    “Actually, I would have given the Legislature a an F,” said Dinniman. “Because while we underfund Philadelphia schools, we spend over $65 million a year on Keystone exams. Then we turn around, and we stamp ‘failure’ on the students and their teachers when we don’t give them enough money to succeed.”

    Senate Education Committee majority chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, could not be reached for comment.

    Bodine High School English teacher Anissa Weinraub says the lack of funding has meant havoc for  schools districtwide.

    “Schools don’t have staff and resources to prevent and solve problems,” said Weinraub, a core member of the Teacher Action Group. “If you can’t meet students needs, you get trapped in a really toxic cycle of violence, negativity and punishment.”

    Philadelphia City Councilman Bill Greenlee defended City Council’s record, pointing out it’s authorized more money for schools than the district asked for this year.

    “Could the schools always get more money? Sure, absolutely,” Greenlee said. “But there’s also a balancing act we have to consider when you talk about raising taxes and the impact that has on both residents and businesses.”

    Greenlee joined the education advocates in criticizing the state Legislature.

    Sharon Ward of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy center said that’s not yet a position that Council has the privilege to take.

    “The longer it takes Philadelphia City Council to pass the sales tax, the harder it will be to go to Harrisburg and say you need to do your job and provide more money for Philadelphia and the other school districts,” Ward said.

    Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke has a five-year plan that would send an additional $124.4 million to the district this fiscal year and $187.6 million in additional funding next fiscal year.

    Clarke wants to split proceeds from the 1-percent sales tax increase between the schools and the city’s pension system. His plan is contingent on the state passing the cigarette tax to make up the difference in revenue.

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