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Philly.com - May 4, 2016

Commentary: Funding pre-K doesn't solve problem of underfunded schools

AS A CAREER educator dedicated to improving our schools and ensuring that children in our poorest communities get the chance to succeed, I applaud Mayor Kenney for kicking off his term in office by seeking to expand educational opportunities for Philadelphia's most vulnerable children.

I have serious concerns, however, that the mayor's plan to expand universal pre-kindergarten to every Philadelphia child will not achieve what it is designed to do: putting tens of thousands of our poorest children on the path to academic success.

Kenney's proposal would effectively reinvent the wheel. Instead of providing additional resources for the Philadelphia School District's nationally recognized pre-K program (the largest in the city, serving about 9,000 3- and 4-years-olds) the administration wants to expand the use of private providers. This approach does a disservice both to students and to teachers.

According to a recent report by the William Penn Foundation, many of Philadelphia's privately run pre-K facilities pay teachers wages of only $10 an hour. While the mayor has talked frequently about the additional jobs expanded pre-K would create in our city's poorest communities, he needs to ensure that these taxpayer-supported positions provide unionized family-sustaining wages for the primarily female and African-American teaching workforce. Kenney has long been a supporter of organized labor and the city's prevailing wage law, but his current approach violates the spirit of that commitment.

Pay scales this low - some facilities pay teachers only the minimum wage - won't attract the highly qualified professionals these children deserve. We need early childhood specialists in front of classrooms who have the skills to put children on the path to academic success, not baby-sitters. As for privately run pre-K facilities that are currently succeeding, we should be working toward unionizing their teachers, as well. If we want to ensure that educators with a proven track record continue to remain in the classroom, we need to provide them with the financial stability to support their families.

Beginning in 2013, the district began outsourcing thousands of pre-K seats to private providers. Billed as a cost-saving measure, it expanded the low-wage workforce the mayor is seeking to double down on. Kenney must reverse this disturbing trend and strengthen a workforce of properly paid and highly qualified district teachers.

But before the mayor even pursues pre-K or other ambitious initiatives such as community schools, he needs first to tackle the district's long-running fiscal crisis head-on.

What benefit will these new programs bring to children forced to attend kindergarten through 12th grade in schools that don't even have libraries? Not 1 cent of the nearly half-billion dollars in new spending the mayor is proposing is earmarked for rehiring recently laid-off teachers, nurses and counselors. It does nothing to restore art, advanced placement and extracurricular activities that have been cut. Even if we provide children with the best pre-K experience, we still won't see a benefit if they are forced to spend the following 13 years in underfunded and underresourced schools. We must address our schools' chronic budgetary shortfalls before discussing program expansion.

In addition, I have concerns about the revenue source the mayor is relying on to fund these proposals. Instead of turning to tried and tested methods for securing funding, the mayor has embarked upon a risky strategy to tax sugar-sweetened beverages that could result in a protracted legal challenge. Even the mayor has acknowledged such a challenge is a "very real possibility," and Finance Director Rob Dubow has testified before City Council that this could delay implementation of the tax. If policy objectives such as universal pre-K are a priority - and I believe they should be - then the mayor should find a dependable source of revenue that can't be tied up for years in the courts or easily evaded.

George Bezanis is a social studies teacher at Central High School and serves as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' representative at the school. He is a leader of the union's Caucus of Working Educators.

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