Will Drinking Soda Help Philly’s Kids Achieve More?

Several of our state legislators have demonstrated time and time again that their constituents’ kids, at least the ones who are blessed with a permanent tan, aren’t a budgeting priority. In response, our city recently launched an ambitious plan to secure alternate funding to increase the number of community schools that serve our communities. Taking this approach pushed the new mayor to make a very worthwhile investment in the whole child.

Mayor Kenney faced a challenge in funding these schools as Philadelphia remains one of the poorest big cities in the nation. The Mayor chose to use a soda tax to fund these schools, as well as other initiatives (universal Pre-K, park, recreation center, library renovations, etc.).

What was interesting was that our newly elected mayor was proposing the very tax that he vigorously opposed as a city councilman when the previous mayor attempted to secure additional funding. This time, like the last time, the opposition was largely funded by big soda companies.

Big soda is angry, but who cares? They don’t have a strong record for caring about our communities

But, back to Philly’s newest iteration of community schools. I am very happy and a little wary.

Happy because the social fabric of too many communities have the same enormous potholes that many of Philly’s roads have. Investigating the unique circumstances that surround a neighborhood’s struggles and finding partners to help address them, can be a tremendous lever.

For far too often, schools have been expected to stand alone and attempt to address all the injustices that plague communities. And, when there were partners waiting in the wings, schools may not have had the capacity or vision to establish partnerships efficiently and effectively. The new vision for Philly’s first nine community schools is expected to address these concerns.

I am wary because, even with increased health centers, job trainings, etc., if the teaching, learning, and accountability for both is not a paramount aspect of these types of interventions, the schools will continue to struggle. I am hopeful that accountability for what and how much kids learn will also play a key role in firmly establishing our city’s newest iteration of community schools.

More school funding is great, but it wont automatically translate into accountability

This will take a continued coordination as community school aspects will be managed by the city, while the schools themselves will remain district schools. This doesn’t concern me, although our city does not have a great record on integrating complex services for kids (see recent child welfare fiasco).

I am also concerned because Philly continues to add more funding to our schools (a great thing for sure). However, the state apparently looks at our city doing more and becomes determined to do less. A soda tax to address our students’ educational needs does not absolve the Pennsylvania legislature from fairly funding our students’ education.

However, kudos to the mayor for not waiting passively for PA to fund its new fair funding formula and using his leverage as a new mayor to get some much needed support for some of our neediest schools.

I am now eager to look at the mayor’s voting record as a councilman to see what else he vehemently opposed that would also be good for our city’s children.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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