Bill That Approved Cigarette Tax Guarantees More Charter Schools in Philadelphia

As part of the deal that allowed Philadelphia to raise its cigarette tax by $2 a pack, prospective city charter schools that are rejected can now appeal.

Philadelphians exhaled last week when the Pennsylvania House approved a $2-a-pack cigarette tax increase in the city, a move expected to generate up to $170 million. Without that extra money, the district’s schools faced drastic cuts in October. No one was really happy about it. When it looked as if the bill would pass this summer, Newsworks’ Dave Davies wrote the legislative victory was “spectacularly depressing” — but at least it’s a solution for this school year.

It’s not like House Republicans suddenly changed their mind on a cigarette tax that was declared dead in late June and delayed again this July for nothing. A report in the Inquirer this summer detailed the reason many House GOP members flipped: An amendment in the cigarette tax bill allows charter school applicants rejected or ignored by the School Reform Commission a second chance with the state Charter Appeals Board. Previously, they had no avenue to appeal. (See the final version of HB 1177 below; it contains both the cigarette tax language and the charter appeal process.)

This doesn’t seem like a lot to get for supporting the cigarette tax bill, but it also seems a bit sad that some Western Pennsylvania Republicans wouldn’t support a bill that would allow Philadelphia to educate its students properly without getting something in return. GOP House members in the counties surrounding Philadelphia were instrumental in getting the cigarette tax bill passed, according to GOP Rep. John Taylor (of the Northwood section of Philadelphia). It’s an encouraging sign of cooperation between lawmakers in the suburbs and Philadelphia, and one we should see more often. A better Philadelphia is good for the entire area (and the state, too).

Per the Inquirer, Taylor pushed for the deal. He once attempted to open a charter, Philadelphia Polytechnic Charter School, which would have had campuses in Fishtown and South Philly. In some ways, it actually seems fair that charter school applications in the city now have the right to appeal. Maybe Taylor’s Polytechnic Charter would have been an excellent school — based on recent evidence, he does care about Philadelphia schools.

But another spin one can put on it is this: Fair or not, the deal virtually assures more charters will open in the city. The 2001 state takeover of Philadelphia schools exempted the city from a charter school appeals process; the city hasn’t approved any new charters since 2009 due to financial issues. (Twenty-one existing schools have been converted into Renaissance charters.) This means board members out of Harrisburg will get a second say on charters the school district might be saying it can’t afford. If you’re a proponent of charter school education, this is good for you. It was good enough for many state Republicans, who generally support charters, to switch their votes.

But if you’re someone who believes a strong public school system is what’s best and fairest for the city’s children, you have to be disappointed that was the giveaway for the cigarette tax approval. The charter school people even gloated to the Inquirer, saying it was “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.”

The school district says it is not in a financial situation where more charters are possible right now. But in order to get funding this year, the district’s going to get more charters forced on it. The district is no longer reimbursed for charters; one of the reasons the district is in poor financial shape is that charters have eaten away at enrollment while many other costs remain relatively the same. The charter provision in the new bill will surely make this situation more dire.

In order to save Philadelphia schools this year, they state may have set them up to fail again in the future.

Previously: The Cigarette Tax Passes: What They’re Saying