Top U.S. House Democrat Nancy Pelosi showered praise on Philadelphia’s pre-K expansion during a Tuesday visit, and stumped for similar action at the federal level.
Pelosi spoke alongside other heavy hitters such as Gov. Tom Wolf, Mayor Jim Kenney, Pennsylvania state Rep. Dwight Evans, and School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite during a pre-K roundtable hosted by Public Citizens for Children and Youth and the United Way.
Her message to Philadelphia was simple: You’ve got our attention.
“Something great is happening in Philadelphia when it comes to pre-K,” she said, referring to the city’s planned addition of 6,500 quality pre-K slots over the next five years.
Pelosi’s pitch seemed as geared toward fiscal conservatives as it was to the liberal politicians in the room. Echoing logic often used by early childhood advocates, Pelosi said pre-K investment pays for itself because it frees parents to work, increases the intellectual capacity of students, and reduces the eventual likelihood that those same students end up in jail.
“When somebody says we cannot spend this money in the budget because it’s going to increase the deficit, that is a false economy,” Pelosi said. “The facts are these: Nothing brings more money to the treasury of a locality, the state, or the federal government than investing in education.”
President Obama proposed a universal pre-K initiative in 2013 that would have been funded through an increase in the federal tobacco tax. While those efforts have stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress, Pelosi and other advocates can shine their star power on cities such as Philadelphia and New York, which have bankrolled their own early childhood expansions.
Pelosi applauded Kenney for “having the courage to go out there and fund this the way that you are doing.”
Philadelphia will get those funds through a sweetened beverage tax that Kenney proposed and pushed through City Council.
“I know that you’re a target because of those who oppose the funding,” Pelosi said.
The beverage tax is scheduled to go into effect in January, just as the city adds 2,000 high-quality pre-K seats. The city recently opened enrollment for those new slots and is encouraging parents to apply.
That’s despite the fact that the American Beverage Association and other groups have sued Philadelphia, claiming its new tax violates the state Constitution. A successful legal challenge could kill the pre-K expansion before it takes off.
Asked about that possibility Tuesday, Kenney was defiant.
“We’re not going to hesitate,” he said. “We’re moving forward. Our kids have waited too long, and I’m not gonna let a bunch of soda guys decide that their futures are not gonna be met.”
The mayor did not say whether there was a contingency plan to pay for expanded pre-K or his community schools initiative, both of which are supposed to be funded with beverage tax revenue. He said, however, that the promised 2,000 pre-K seats in the first phase of the rollout will “be there in January.”
“Right now we’re defending a lawsuit and we’re moving forward,” he said. “That’s all I have for you right now.”
Just as Philly’s pre-K expansion will earn it national attention, so too will its new tax. Many will no doubt be tracking the pending lawsuit, perhaps most especially those from Pelosi’s home base.
The minority leader’s hometown of San Francisco has a soda tax referendum on the ballot this November. That same day, a similar measure will go before voters across the bay in Oakland.