June 28 — 12:15 pm, 2013

Lessons from a budget battle

untitled 1 Photo: Helen Gym

Last Thursday, City Council decided that democracy was inconvenient.

Faced with a deluge of phone calls and an unprecedented outpouring of parent action supporting the progressive Use & Occupancy tax, City Council President Darrell Clarke shut down an expected vote on the tax and instead announced that the city would seek more than $74 million for schools through a tax on cigarettes and improved delinquent-tax collection.

One City Hall insider told me that certain members of City Council were “sh*!%ing bricks” at the number of phone calls they were receiving and were unhappy at the idea of taking a public vote on the Use & Occupancy tax.  At least one City Council office said it had received almost 100 phone calls on Wednesday, the day before the vote.

Council members said the passage of U&O would threaten cigarette-tax legislation that was moving through Harrisburg. Clarke echoed the sentiments of Council when he said that the city wanted to shift attention away from Philadelphia and focus attention on Harrisburg to solve the schools’ problems. Not surprisingly, it turns out that Pennsylvania’s solution is simply to foist it all back onto Philadelphia anyway.

The move stung many who had worked tirelessly to build support around the Use & Occupancy tax (U&O) as an important school-funding guarantee. The cigarette tax requires state action. The U&O tax, on the other hand, was entirely within the city’s control. Moreover, the bill was structured as a grant to the School District, not as a direct payment. As such, Parents United for Public Education and others felt that there was a chance to not only ensure a school-funding guarantee but to have some say in determining how restored funding would be spent.

It was particularly upsetting because of the way parents were treated during the Council session. Dozens were denied entry into Council chambers. Arcane rules were suddenly invoked in order to limit public testimony. Parents nevertheless held a people’s assembly outside the chambers, reading aloud some of the 4,000 letters that  had recently been delivered to Harrisburg and making statements about the importance of parent action.

Despite Council’s behavior, it’s important to remember how significant an impact the broader public and organized parents had on this budget battle.  After all, this was an uphill fight from the start, thanks mostly to Mayor Nutter’s failure to include any enhanced funding for schools in the budget he presented to City Council in March, beyond promising better tax collection. That alone ensured a down-to-the-wire frenzy instead of a strategic school-funding campaign.

We faced the well-financed and longtime lobbies of the Chamber of Commerce, which vehemently opposed the U&O. Chamber of Commerce president Rob Wonderling complained  in Council that the U&O tax put the “sole burden” of school funding on the business community (conveniently ignoring three straight years of property tax increases while commercial landlords enjoyed millions in tax breaks). Corporate lobbyists from the hotel and casino industry successfully opposed the liquor-by-the-drink tax, and convenience store giant Wawa was reportedly in the state Capitol within hours distributing flyers that questioned cigarette-tax enabling legislation.

Despite these obstacles, the crisis – in fact, the entire year of community activism, which included thousands of people coming out to oppose the school closings – moved schools and communities across the city to take heroic action. More important, it resulted in an independent community voice that forced Council and others to some action, if not the fullest action.

As our attention turns to Harrisburg, here are some lessons we learned from this most recent budget battle in City Council:

  1. Timing matters: Budgets are always finalized at the last minute, but laying the groundwork about school-funding expectations can never happen early enough. Parents need to begin early this fall seeking sponsors for next year’s school-funding bill.
  2. Developing relationships matters: Corporate lobbyists aren’t successful just because they have a lot of money. They’re successful because they purposefully and relentlessly pursue elected officials and let them know that they will vote/donate/support their elected officials based on their issues. Parents must build on the work that we did this spring and let officials know that we’re paying attention and won’t drop the issue. Erratic eruptions of civic activism amid crisis are not the same as sustained political advocacy over time.
  3. Keeping a local focus matters: Let’s face it: If our own local legislators are not feeling the heat to fight for us in Harrisburg, why would anyone else? Local politicians told us repeatedly to go to Harrisburg, but the sharpest thing we can do is to laser in on our local leaders in City Council, the mayor, civic leadership and the local Harrisburg delegation and hold their feet to the fire to do everything possible to fight for us in the state Capitol.
  4. A principled vision matters: One of our biggest challenges continues to be countering the prevailing narrative about funding “failed schools” – a narrative that the District and top city leaders themselves evoke to our detriment. School activists rose to the occasion – establishing clear educational and academic priorities that built toward unified struggle. School safety aides went on a hunger strike to demand attention to the fragility of school climate and the importance of non-police safety personnel in schools. Teacher Action Group (TAG-Philly) started a website telling stories of the 3,800-plus school personnel who were laid off this month. Students marched for education justice, and the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools made strong links between what was happening nationally, particularly in Chicago, as well as in Philadelphia. The importance of having a clear vision and priorities for funding remains crucial.
  5. An independent parent voice matters: From Fox Chase and McCloskey in the Northeast to Cook-Wissahickon in Roxborough to Powel in West Philadelphia to GAMP in South Philadelphia, parents this year took a lead in a real grassroots and coordinated effort to build voice and movement at their schools. Experience mattered. Having independent watchdog groups on education voting helped streamline and focus parent actions. New media allowed parents in all parts of the city to become better informed and take a more independent path. Parents also got activated through their churches, temples, and faith-based organizations. Thanks to the strong outcry, it’s clear that parents are not satisfied with diverting a “doomsday budget” and want longer-term stability and funding efforts for schools. Such actions have also had some influence on District officials, who are temporarily delaying charter expansion.

However disappointing or tiring this year’s budget battle was, it could not have been more important. The mistake would be for it to remain this year’s battle rather than what it should be – laying the groundwork for next year’s school-funding campaign. Though we may not have achieved all the successes we set out to accomplish, we established the groundwork for another powerful effort in the fall.

We will be back in City Hall, and this time we won’t be asking for ad-hoc, last-minute favors. We’ll be looking at real structural funding changes for our schools and the priorities that make the investment worthwhile. We’ll need our parent leadership to stay strong and focused if we’re going to get the political traction we need for the bigger struggles that lie ahead.

Helen Gym is co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, an editor at "Rethinking Schools," and a contributor to and former board member of the Notebook.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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