ANOTHER OPINION: Teach Philly ‘How To Fish’ For Its School Budget

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BY J. MATTHEW WOLFE/ Once again it’s budget time and Philadelphia is asking the state legislature for a fish. It’s about time the legislature teaches them how to fish.

This year, the problem is the schools.  The problem is real.  The current School District budget would be catastrophic for the city and, most importantly, the children.

The problems, however real, are not new or unpredictable. I was recently helping to move the Republican City Committee offices and found an article from a series that the Philadelphia Inquirer did entitled “The Shame of our Schools.” It was dated 1981.

Remember how we got into this mess. Philadelphia’s problems with its schools are due to its being one of the poorest cities in America. That didn’t happen by accident. Choices were made that drove businesses, jobs and taxpayers out of the city. Our poverty is directly related to high tax rates, irrational tax structure, corruption, mismanagement and misplaced spending priorities.

There was no natural catastrophe. There was no plague. Politicians made decisions, sometimes out of a failure to understand the consequences of their actions but more often to pander to special-interest groups as a reward for past or anticipated electoral support. It’s really just that simple.

Getting out of this is also simple. Reverse the bad choices. Lower tax rates, reform the tax structure, eliminate corruption and mismanagement and spend only on core municipal functions: public safety, public education, sanitation and maintenance of the infrastructure. Simple does not mean easy. It will be painful, but it couldn’t be as bad as the misery that poverty has brought us.

It is reported that some of the ideas to “help” Philadelphia are things like allowing the City to place a $2-per-pack tax on cigarette sales and extending Philadelphia’s “temporary” 1% sales tax, which is supposed to expire at the end 2014.

These are not solutions to the problem.

Let’s look at the cigarette tax. They are thinking about giving Philadelphia’s City Council additional taxing authority. Think about that. Giving Philadelphia’s City Council additional taxing authority! How’s that worked out in the past?

Both the cigarette tax and the sales tax will drive sales out of Philadelphia and not all of it goes to Pennsylvania suburbs. Every dollar that goes to Jersey, Delaware or the internet means Pennsylvania loses more tax revenue than Philadelphia loses. Whom exactly does this help?

How about this? If the legislature thinks that the policy is such a good idea, such as the cigarette tax, why don’t they let every municipality in the state do the same thing? I didn’t think so. But if it is bad policy to allow the tax statewide, how is it good for Pennsylvania to allow Philadelphia an exception.

If the legislature wants to help Philadelphia, allowing it to shoot itself in the foot by raising taxes is not the way. Any funding for the schools should be contingent on positive change.

The School District should be required to hire, fire, promote and assign teachers based on what is in the best interests of the children, not seniority.

The School District closed 23 schools and deserves credit for that. It was traumatic. The problem is, they probably should have closed another 25-30, but did not want to expend the political capital. There are still too many under-capacity schools. The School District should be required to close schools and redraw catchment areas so each school operates at approximately 85% of capacity.

The School District has been trying to restrict charter schools from expanding. This is despite the fact that the amount of money it turns over to the charter schools for each child enrolled is less than what it costs to educate children in the School District-operated schools. The School District should only be able to restrict the creation and expansion of charter schools based only on how well they are teaching our children, not funding. If more parents choose charter schools, the School District can close even more schools and concentrate the money on educating fewer children.

Philadelphia needs and wants help. That being said, allowing it to increase taxes on itself to drive more business and taxpayers out do much more harm than good.

J. Matthew Wolfe is a former Deputy Attorney General and the Chairman of the University City Republican Committee in West Philadelphia.

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