June 8 — 3:19 pm, 2020

Corporations are “looting” public dollars, at students’ expense

If you have to pay to access public school online, is it still public?

Adam Sanchez

computer keyboard

Update: Comcast has disputed some statements in this commentary. Their response is at the end.

As the explosive protests of the last week have made clear, the anger at racism in Philadelphia runs deep. This anger is about much more than the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis — or even police brutality. The disturbingly regular police killings of black people across the country is the sharpest edge of a society that devalues black lives.

One of the clearest examples of systemic racism in our city is the chronic underfunding of Philadelphia’s public schools. With a majority black student population and 86% students of color, the District faces a constant struggle for basic supplies and staffing. This sends a clear message to students that their education is not a priority.

Although many people have condemned the looting of storefronts last week, far fewer have condemned the decades of systematic “looting” of public dollars by large corporations.

Comcast and other large corporations have promoted tax policies at the city, state, and federal levels that have increasingly robbed public schools of needed revenue. The Comcast Technology Center, built with $40 million in public subsidies, received the largest share of Philadelphia’s 10-year tax abatement in 2019. Comcast is one of the main investors in the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, a key opponent of ending this tax break. According to the Our City, Our Schools Coalition, this tax abatement stole $61 million from public schools in 2018.

Comcast regularly spends millions of dollars to lobby and contribute to the campaigns of state and federal politicians. These politicians, in turn, have rewarded Comcast with tax breaks and subsidies. At the state level, Comcast received $18 million in tax incentives from 2007 to 2012, more than any other Philadelphia business.

Comcast also opposes efforts to actually close the “Delaware Loophole,” which allows the firm to use Delaware subsidiaries to avoid paying taxes on profits made in Pennsylvania. At the federal level, Comcast received $861 million in subsidies in 2018, putting its tax rate at 14.7% instead of the full 21% corporate rate, as analyzed  by the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Policy. Comcast pays a smaller percentage of its income in federal taxes than most Philadelphia public school teachers do.

Although this type of looting is perfectly legal — thanks to Comcast’s army of lobbyists — its impact is devastating: Not only does Pennsylvania provide a smaller share of education funding than almost all other states, but our state also has one of the largest funding gaps between wealthier, whiter districts and poorer districts like Philadelphia’s. Payment for such school-budget expenses as school supplies, field trips, dances, and sports and other extracurricular activities has been bolstered by private donations, often from parents and teachers — and in Philadelphia, we have less to give.

These inequities were exacerbated when schools went online during the pandemic, making students’ homes, if they had one, suddenly become their new classrooms. In the fall, it seems likely that schools will continue to be at least partially online. When classes are online, some students’ lack of internet access threatens the city’s ability to keep public schools public.

Comcast’s refusal to open up all its WiFi networks to students during the pandemic suggests that the $5 million that their billionaire CEO gave the Philadelphia School District to purchase laptops for students was not charity, but an investment. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census, as many as one in four Philly families don’t have broadband internet access. That’s a lot of potential new customers if WiFi is needed to access school next year.

Furthermore, if public schools are online and families have to pay to get online, are they still public schools? Forcing students to pay to participate in the core aspects of their school experience is a new and fundamentally different obstacle to access.

Comcast exists in Philadelphia because residents allow it, not because it has a right to public infrastructure. Comcast runs wires through our streets and up our telephone poles — it relies on the use of public space. Thus, when Comcast refuses to live up to its public responsibility, we should be outraged. The company should be sanctioned and regulated.

Comcast’s contribution to systemic racism in Philadelphia stands out not just for “looting” the public sector and threatening the basic premise of public schools, but also because of Comcast’s partnership with the Philly Police Foundation that has helped raise money to purchase the Philadelphia Police Department new military-style equipment they are now using on antiracist protesters.

To understand the anger expressed in our city and across the country over the last week, it’s essential to see tax breaks and subsidies for large corporations for what they are: the systematic looting of public dollars that robs poor and working-class people of the few services left that help us survive. Fighting to expand, not shrink, the public sector is a key antiracist demand not only because the legacy of racism means that black people disproportionately rely on public services, but also because the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement means that black people are a higher percentage of public sector workers.

If black lives mattered, we would be doing everything we can to drastically increase funding for public schools and make the internet a public utility with free access for all. If black lives are to matter in Philadelphia, we need our city leaders to prioritize maintaining and expanding these services instead of cutting them further while adding $14 million to the Police Department budget.

As Martin Luther King Jr., said more than 50 years ago: “A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.”

Those in the streets are calling for an end to the brutal treatment of black people by this country’s police. But when they insist that black lives matter, they mean that they matter in every arena of our society — including the funding of our schools. Will we hear them?

Comcast’s response: 

  • Our federal tax rate in 2018 was 22.2%, not 14.7%.
  • Comcast’s 2019 direct tax and fee payments to the City of Philadelphia and School District together totaled over $100 million in 2019.
  • Comcast pays 5% of its cable revenue to the City of Philadelphia to use telephone poles, rights of way to deliver broadband, television and phone to customers.
  • The Delaware Loophole was closed in 2013, nearly 7 years ago, and Comcast supported the legislation.
  • We opened our WiFi hotspots at businesses and outdoor locations across the country in March for free to everyone.

Adam Sanchez is an African American history teacher at Lincoln High School, an editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and the editor of the book Teaching A People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War.

The Notebook is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Read more at https://brokeinphilly.org and follow us on twitter @BrokeInPhilly.



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