Op-Ed: Bernie Sanders Is Wrong About the Soda Tax

Randi Weingarten: It would tax corporate profits — not consumers — and give thousands of kids the chance to go to pre-K.

Randi Weingarten Bernie Sanders

L: Randi Weingarten (Damian Dovarganes/AP) R: Sen. Bernie Sanders (Matt Rourke/AP)

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from guest writer Randi Weingarten, written in response to an op-ed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and a member of a coalition of labor unions and civic groups supporting the mayor’s soda tax proposal.)

Philadelphia’s students deserve a fair shot to succeed, and Mayor Jim Kenney has a plan to significantly boost funding for critical programs.

The mayor is proposing a significant increase in pre-kindergarten, to provide 25,000 kids a chance to get their education started early. And he’s proposing to expand community schools that provide critical services like health care and counseling to students who often can’t access the support they need to thrive.

You’ve probably heard the corporate spin, but here’s the truth about Mayor Kenney’s soda tax proposal: It would tax corporate profits — not consumers — and generate $400 million to fund programs to give Philadelphia’s children safe communities and a quality public education.

Kids in Philadelphia deserve access to pre-kindergarten programs and community schools, libraries and resource centers — all things this tax would help provide.

Teachers and support personnel in Philadelphia contribute to help kids every day — whether by providing food or materials out of their own pockets, or making sacrifices in their pay and benefits that helped plug budget holes in the worst of the recession. We want our children healthy and able to learn. But we need help. We need it now.

The importance of this is not lost on Hillary Clinton, a long-time advocate for early childhood education who has voiced her support for this proposal.

Hillary has seen how years of austerity stripped Philadelphia’s public schools of people and resources like librarians, school nurses, guidance counselors and textbooks. She understands this tax is a progressive measure that will begin to undo the damage.

She also gets that our kids can’t wait for conservatives in Harrisburg to offer more resources for Philadelphia communities.

Here’s the truth: There is no one waiting in the wings to pick up the tab if this proposal is defeated.

If you believe in the power of education to lift people out of poverty, and if you believe corporations should pay a fair share, then opposition to the soda tax is political. Research has proven that pre-K is the one of the best ways to start children on the road to academic achievement. Even the soda industry acknowledges the need for expanded pre-K. And Mayor Kenney’s plan would invest more than $250 million to expand pre-K.

To pay for this critically-needed investment, the mayor asks the soda industry to contribute a tiny fraction of its multi-billion dollar annual profits. This is a tax on distributors, and real progressives should be supporting the tax and demanding the soda companies contribute a fair share without passing costs on to consumers.

Calling it a “grocery tax” is another red-herring. As the Philadelphia Daily News said last week in criticizing the industry’s misinformation campaign of TV and radio ads against the tax: “The ads … insist on calling Kenney’s proposal a grocery tax. That’s like calling the cigarette tax a grocery tax because cigarettes are sold in supermarkets and grocery stores.” If you don’t buy soda or sugar-sweetened drinks, this proposal doesn’t increase the cost of groceries at all.

Philadelphia has the highest rate of poverty of any major city in America. The soda tax represents the fastest and fairest way to generate the funds that are needed now to fund pre-K and other important city services.

We have a choice. We can side with the soda companies that don’t want to contribute their fair share to pay for these critically important programs, or we can stand up for the future of Philadelphia’s children.