Inquirer Editorial: Use sales tax to help schools

Clarke CHARLES FOX / Staff
Clarke CHARLES FOX / Staff
Posted: April 28, 2014

Every year, Mayor Nutter and City Council must decide how much of the city's budget should be given to public schools. It's a tough decision, because by law, whatever they commit cannot be reduced later.

Their decision has been made more difficult as the state, which effectively took over the School District in 2001, has time and again in recent years failed to adequately fund all of the schools' needs.

But this year is different. The legislature gave the city the go-ahead to extend a sales-tax hike, which could provide another $120 million a year for schools. And the district has put that cash in its budget. But the revenue isn't being collected because Council President Darrell Clarke wants it to be shared.

Clarke wants half of the sales-tax increase to go toward paying off the city's $5 billion unfunded employee-pension obligation. That's a worthy goal, but it would require too many steps to trip over before the schools' desperate fiscal condition gets worse.

Nutter says he will only go along with splitting the sales-tax money if the legislature passes a Philadelphia-only cigarette tax for schools to make up the difference. Getting any tobacco tax passed in Pennsylvania is difficult, given the strength of that industry's lobby. Besides that, many in the tax-averse legislature think they have already gone too far out on a limb for Philadelphia.

Their disgraceful attitude ignores the state's constitutional obligation to adequately fund public education, not to mention that state funding for all public schools in Pennsylvania has declined from 50 percent to 35 percent since the 1990s.

The children have suffered enough. Not just in Philadelphia but across the state, schools lack enough nurses, aides, librarians, teachers, and administrators to do the job. Inadequate staffing was a factor in the weekly brawls at Bartram High School, which received 100 new students from other city schools that were closed.

Only a few weeks remain for Council to introduce and pass a sales-tax bill by the June 30 budget deadline. It needs to go ahead and provide that money to Philadelphia's schoolchildren and get to work with the mayor on another viable plan to address the pension shortfall. Meanwhile, legislators across the state need to stop acting as if only Philadelphia's schools have a problem and get together to press for a fairer school funding formula.

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