How Philly Families Will Pay for Harrisburg’s Sins

And why the coming schools disaster didn't have to happen.


Here’s something I’m not sure members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives have considered as they goof around on vacation and play games with the future of Philly schools: They’re about to hurt a lot of families in very tangible ways.

The equation goes like this:

• The House’s decision to stay on vacation next week instead of coming back to Harrisburg for a vote on a cigarette tax proposal makes it increasingly likely that Philly schools won’t start on time.

• If schools don’t open on time, tens of thousands of schoolchildren are going to need something to do.

•  Parents of many of those kids will pay to put their children in child care for the duration. But child care isn’t cheap — it can cost upward of hundreds of dollars a week, and thousands of dollars a month, to keep kids somewhere safe and occupied. This is no small concern.

• So there’s that huge expense for families that didn’t expect to bear it. But it’s also true that many of those tens of thousands of family can’t afford the daycare, or can barely afford it. Those that can’t might rely on families … or they’ll make unorthodox arrangements that please no one.

Which is to say nothing of the thousands of teachers, administrators, and classified staffers who will sit home without getting paid. Or the impact on the education of every student stuck in limbo. Philly is about to pay a terrible price.

There’s an old saying: “Bad planning on your part does not create an emergency on my part.” But bad planning on the part of our leaders in Harrisburg is about to create a real crisis in Philadelphia.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not entirely unsympathetic to their reasons for delaying action. No, it’s not quite right that they should give Philadelphia a tool — the cigarette tax — to aid its schools while leaving needy districts in the rest of the state without new help. No, it’s not fair that many districts have raised property taxes to try and make up for funding shortfalls. And yeah, from Philly’s perspective, a cigarette tax is a relatively short-term funding solution for a district in need of a long-term fix — a “hollow victory” as Patrick Kerkstra puts it; one that lets the state off  the hook for its financial responsibilities to the schools.

The problem: All of this was knowable — was known — at the beginning of the legislative session.

All  of this was knowable — and known — when legislators passed a budget last month and went home.

So now? Now isn’t the time to be talking about long-term fixes and fairness or unfairness. Right now, the greatest possible good consists of one duty and one duty only:

Making sure the school doors open on damned time.

From where I stand, authorizing the cigarette tax as soon as possible looks like the best, maybe only way to get that accomplished. If legislators then want to immediately set about working on a long-term fix that pleases them more greatly, nothing could be finer.

Unless that happens, schools activist Helen Gym is probably right to appraise the current situation as a “purposeful act of cruelty and neglect” to Philadelphia, its public schools, and the families that depend on them. Harrisburg had a chance to fix this. It is choosing to throw that chance away. Philly families will pay the price — literally.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.