Last-minute insert helped get Phila. cigarette tax approved

State Rep. John Taylor tucked into the bill an insert to expand charter-school appeals.
State Rep. John Taylor tucked into the bill an insert to expand charter-school appeals. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 05, 2014

An amendment tucked into the cigarette-tax bill at the last minute Wednesday night helped persuade some Republicans in the state House to approve the new tax for Philadelphia schools.

But the three-paragraph insert was not about cigarettes or taxes. It was about people who want to start charter schools.

Added by the House Rules Committee before the bill went to the full chamber for a vote, the amendment gives charter applicants in Philadelphia the right to turn to the state Charter Appeals Board if the School Reform Commission ignores or rejects their proposals.

Philadelphia School District spokesman Fernando Gallard said district officials were still reviewing the language and were not sure what impact the change would have.

"All it does is give charters or proposed charters a right to appeal, just like in the other 499 school districts. Nothing more and nothing less," said State Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.), who pressed for the amendment.

Taylor and another lawmaker once tried to launch a charter school in the city. He said that experience guided his actions.

Other factors helped move the long-stalled cigarette tax bill. Supporters credited lawmakers such as Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks) and nonstop lobbying by city and school officials. Taylor said he wasn't sure what part his amendment played in obtaining 47 GOP votes for the bill's passage Wednesday night, 119-90.

But he said he thought it helped.

"If you're a charter proponent," he said Thursday in an interview, "it could give you some reason to vote for this."

It made a convert of the House majority leader. Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said the charter school language turned him from a "no way" on the cigarette tax to a yes.

"John Taylor was very helpful," said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a Philadelphia-based organization that championed additional education funding. "He has always been someone who advocated for Philly schools."

The legislation the House passed Wednesday allows Philadelphia to impose a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes sales, a levy that is projected to generate $45 million for the city's cash-strapped schools this year.

The state Senate is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday and send it to Gov. Corbett to sign.

The city and the School District have lobbied Harrisburg for more than a year for permission to impose the cigarette tax. But in a GOP-controlled legislature, some of whose members took antitax pledges, the bill had languished.

Taylor's insert was drawn from a bill he had cosponsored that passed the House in September, but had not gained traction in the Senate.

The insert addresses a provision in the law that led to the state takeover of Philadelphia schools in 2001. That law gave the SRC wider latitude in handling charter-school applications, and limited the applicants' rights to appeal.

Taylor said his frustration with trying to found a charter in the city more than two years ago prompted him to seek the change.

The Philadelphia Polytechnic Charter School was proposed as a K-8 school with campuses in Fishtown and South Philadelphia. Along with Taylor, the founding coalition included State Rep. William Keller (D., Phila.) and Vincent J. Fenerty Jr., executive director of the Parking Authority.

The group submitted an application in November 2011. The SRC ignored it.

The district has 86 charters that enrolled 67,000 students in the academic year just ended. Aside from converting 21 troubled schools into so-called Renaissance charters as part of a turnaround program, the SRC has approved no new charters since 2009 because of the district's financial woes.

Polytechnic had no avenue to appeal.

In other districts, Taylor said, a charter application that is ignored is considered denied, and the applicant can go to the state appeal board. His amendment extends that provision to city charter applicants.

Taylor said he has no plans to resubmit the charter application; Polytechnic is defunct.

Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, called the amendment "a clear statement by the House that the School District of Philadelphia and the School Reform Commission overstepped their authority in suspending the charter schools' right of due process."

But Gallard said, "People should not think we have not grown charters in the district. It is just we have done it in a way that is more fiscally responsible."


martha.woodall@

phillynews.com

215-854-2789

Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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