June 24, 2018

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NewsBreakers Edition: Philly Soda Tax is Bad for Education

The LangerCast interviewed Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation.

Published Thursday, June 16, 2016
by Jerry Rogers and Andrew Langer

 

We delve into a subject that is near and dear to our hearts. An issue we’ve talked about on our show now for many weeks, if not months, and it’s this bad idea of the Philly grocery tax.  Mayor Jim Kenney in Philadelphia proposed a 3 cent per ounce beverage tax which will impact about a thousand or 1500 items on the grocery shelves, so it’s really a grocery tax.  To raise, he says, over five years, $400 million for myriad programs including universal pre-K. 

As it turned out the Philadelphia City Council is approved a 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax increase for sugar-added and artificially sweetened soft drinks. A massive, regressive tax that will hurt Philly’s poorest residents.

Mayor Kenney sold the tax by promising that the revenue will be used exclusively for “do-good” government programs, specifically a pre-kindergarten expansion. However, in an eleventh-hour bombshell the Mayor’s office informed the Council that less than half of the revenue will be earmarked for pre-K. Millions of dollars will be used to plug structural problems in the city’s budget.

Lindsey’s work in education policy has been cited by Newsweek, by Time, by The Atlantic.  She’s been on CNN.  So she’s an expert in this field. 

Because what’s been missing in this whole debate—and we’re not going to talk about the economics of this.  We’re not going to talk about the taxes.  We talked about that.  And, in fact, everyone has talked about that. 

The one area that we haven’t addressed yet—when I say we, not just the LangerCast or the Institute for Liberty or Capitol Allies, but all the different interest groups and intellectual groups and advocacy groups.  No one is talking about education policy. 

Jerry:  Because, quite literally, Lindsey will be the first expert in her field to give us some background, some knowledge, some idea of what this means for education policy. 

So, Lindsey, thank you so much for joining us.

Lindsey:  Yes.  Thanks for giving me an opportunity to discuss it.  And I do think preschool is one of those issues where, on the surface, publicly-funded preschool sounds like a great idea, right?  I mean, why would we want to deny little kids publicly-funded pre-K?

But when we dig down a little bit in to what the research says, what the data show, it tells a very different story than what we often hear on the part of proponents of these government programs; and when you look at the data, what we see is consistently—and research study after research study, large-scale evaluations in particular—is that the promises of proponents about universal preschool, government-funded preschool just do not come to fruition.  That children might see a small bump right off the bat, but that those bumps fade for all children by kindergarten by the most part—by third grade are completely gone, that children perform worse behaviorally as their teachers’ report, that we just don’t see the types of benefits that one would hope to see.  Oh, and by the way, it crowds out the private provision of care and costs a lot of money.

Andrew:  Let me ask you this.  And I want to sort of preface this because I think it’s important for folks to sort of understand your background and perspective.  Because a lot of folks sort of come to these issues, these public policy issues, having never ever actually been in the trenches.  But you come at your education policy background honestly.  Honest as honest can be.  You worked as a high school French teacher before you went down this road.  How did that happen?  How did you make that transition, and how does your experience as a teacher inform your thoughts on public policy today?

Lindsey:  I did.  And I’ll be the first to admit it was a brief stent in the classroom; but, nonetheless, it was a stent in the classroom, and I really enjoyed my time there.  I enjoyed teaching.  I enjoyed teaching French.  I enjoyed interacting with kids. 

But at the end of the day, my heart was really in policy.  And I think the policy component is so critical for ensuring that kids can actually match their talents to schools that are designed to meet them.  And not only schools, but we’re at the point now that if we think broadly about K12 education policy within what we call the school choice movement—and Pennsylvania is no stranger to school choice.

But we’re almost to the point now where I’m even reticent to call it “school choice” because we’re seeing such a refinement of the concept.  We have education choice.  Families choosing among private schools, but also private tutors and teachers and textbook providers.  So this real customization of education.

And that is what has animated me over the past—I’ve been doing this for about eight years at Heritage now.  That’s what has really animated me.  I think that we’re at the precipice of—not to sound cheesy but—a real revolution in education policy.  This idea that we’re going to separate the financing of education from the delivery of services—

Lindsey:  And so, I get very excited about that.  Excited about the idea that Milton Friedman laid out half a century ago that we’re finally starting to see come to fruition.

Jerry:  You know, Andrew, let me ask, you know, I was a school teacher as well.  I taught—

Jerry:  I did.  I taught high school.  I love public policy.  I love politics.  But being in the classroom was great fun.  I did it for three years.  So I had a short stent as well.  But you know, you said something that I think is very interesting and that is this kind of education choices broadly, not just school choice, is broadening out to textbooks and to public/private, etc.

But that’s part of the problem with this Mayor Jim Kenney’s plan.

It’s a one-size-fits-all.  He’s throwing at the people of Philadelphia one idea.  And, again, proposing this tax to fund this one idea.  And here’s my quick question.  But the question is this:  Every expert that I’ve read—and I don’t have your background, but I’ve been doing a lot of research and a lot of reading in this area trying to catch up—and everyone, no matter the political background, left or right, democrat, republican, conservative or liberal, it seems there’s universal agreement that the first and best teachers are parents. 

Jerry:  And if Mr. Kenney’s tax is going to force parents and other caregivers, and, you know, families are different, these days we have grandparents and uncles and aunts and everyone else.  The point is, if we’re going to pull parents and steal precious time they have with their kids, well then, we’re not giving them any kind of benefit for the future.

Lindsey:  Yeah.  Look.  I think you’ve hit on something really critical.  If you talk to most folks, you stop somebody on the street, and they will say, “Of course early education is important.  Early childhood education.”

But the way you’re thinking about it is, early education from whom?  And we know that the best possible environment is the one that is closest to the home.  Mother and child.  Father and child.  Family centered.  And then, we sort of move out from that environment.  And I know that I received preschool from my great grandmother, and that was a wonderful experience.

So we move out from there, then maybe it’s a matter of some home-based care where you have some different families within a home providing that early education and care.  And then beyond that we start seeing—maybe it’s a church-based provider or smaller school-based providers.  And only then, I think, do we start to think about, OK, when all those options fail, particularly the private providers, the in-home providers, the church-based providers, then at that point do we think about, are there some sort of subsidies that are needed to ensure families can access early education and care.

But I think it’s that “if” question, right?

Lindsey:  If there are subsidies that are needed that often gets lost because we immediately see policy makers move towards, “Well, of course we should subsidize it.” 

But if you look at the proportion of children who are already enrolled in preschool, it starts to sort of break down a little bit as to whether or not we need a new tax to spend more taxpayer dollars on a pre-K program. 

If you look nationally, about three-quarters of all four-year-old children are already enrolled in some form of preschool or care program.  That’s pretty significant amounts—

Lindsey:  —who are already enrolled.  And it might be that those remaining families want to do at-home early education experience.  So I think we really have to think about whether or not, if we provide new taxpayer-funded subsidies, that we’re providing subsidies for something families are already paying for on their own.

Because, for the most part, and, of course, it varies state to state, but low-income families do have access to subsidized programs:  Head Start programs, some state-based pre-K programs. 

So I think the question in particular for Philadelphia is, is there a gap there, and if you do end up subsidizing it, are you subsidizing something that families are already paying for, and at what cost?

Jerry:  And at what impact?

Lindsey.  And at what impact.  You know, at the end of the day this is what it’s really all about.  Are we actually getting a good impact for the taxpayer dollars that are spent?  I mentioned Head Start—

Lindsey:  Head Start is probably one of the worst performing Federal education programs that has existed.

Jerry:  The impact is what matters.  And one thing that I am curious about, and you may comment on this more broadly.

So the mayor wants to increase the number of seats in the public schools.  But no one has asked the question, well, are the public schools, are they failing, are they stressed, are they already under budget?

So, Jim Kenney, again, he wants to offer this benefit but there’s no examination as to whether or not the schools could even handle the additional seats.

Lindsey:  And not only whether they can handle it or not, but is that really the best policy path forward? To basically take a K-12 system and pull it downward a few years earlier when we know that that existing K-12 system is not always providing the type of education or the quality of education that we would hope that it would provide for kids who use it.

Whether or not we should really pull it down a few years earlier, I think is quite an open question.  Look, often you’ll hear proponents of pre-K say, “Well, you know, there were these two programs, the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Program,” and these were programs from the early to mid 1960s and then Abecedarian came about a decade later.

But in the case of the Perry Preschool Project, about a half century ago, and so proponents pull from, in particular, this one program, Perry, from a half century ago that included about 58 children in the experiment group.  That’s it.  58 kids in the experiment group. 

And they pull from that program because in the Perry Project, the researchers found that kids had improved academic outcomes, their parents had better relationships with their children, there were better health outcomes.  So they list all these good benefits accrued to these kids.  But what is critical to know about Perry is—not only was it basically a nirvana-like preschool experience including around-the-clock instruction, not only with the kids, but with the parents, access to healthcare—but the findings have never been replicated.  Ever.  So this is why proponents use this study that’s 50 years old:  because the findings that came out of that study have never been reproduced. 

And I think it’s far more instructive to look at current evaluations, current programs, and programs that are larger in scale, that are much more likely to look like a—even a local government-funded pre-K program or especially a state or especially a federal pre-K program.

And I think that’s why it’s important for proponents to take a step back and look at what is the impact of Head Start been?  We spend $8 billion a year on this program, and kids are no better off having gone through Head Start.  And this is not just me saying it.  This is Department of Health and Human Services that run Head Start.

Lindsey:  No impact to that program.  No impact of the big gold standard program out of Tennessee.  No impact out of Canada’s government subsidized pre-K program.  So I think that should be most instructive to those who are inclined to increase taxes, to do so for Philadelphia.

Jerry:  I suspect, Lindsey, that because there are truisms that sort of exist through the public policy sphere.  Namely that you can’t look at a public policy problem in a vacuum.  You have to take it into the context of other things that are going on within public policy.

And by this I mean—so we’ve spent all this time and energy based upon a faulty study to put kids in school earlier.  But at the same time what we’ve failed to recognize is the impact of as host of other public policies on the family. 

The single most important determinant in childhood academic success was the degree of the involvement of the parents in that child’s education. 

But the corollary to that is, of course, as you are doing more things to take the parent out of the home, i.e., making it harder for them to earn a living, forcing them to pay all sorts of ridiculous taxes, doing it so that they are working all sorts of part-time jobs because we don’t have an economy that’s actually working properly.  It’s no wonder that none of these programs are producing any sort of success because the only thing that does guarantee success is being ignored and, in fact, punished.  

Lindsey:  Parental involvement is one of the number one indicators of improved academic outcomes.

So that has absolutely held true.  Anything that public policy does to limit that or to encourage—and you know I think this is where the problem is, right, we see policies that encourage center-based care and—we have evidence that suggests that it might be that the center-based care in particular, where children are sort of mimicking other children instead of other influences, that that’s why we get more teacher-reported negative behavior once those children are in elementary school.  So that’s one theory that’s out there.

But look, if you talk to women and, particularly, Gallup has surveyed women for decades now about their ideal sort of work-home balance, and the vast, vast majority of women say that the ideal scenario for them is sort of a part-time mix where they might work part time and stay home part time until, you know, even something as straight-forward as that, I think, these large-scale government taxpayer-funded preschool programs sort of ignore, in large part, what women really want. 

Jerry:  Well, you know, I think it’s interesting that—this is still in the realm of education but it goes to your point about, is this really about politics?  Is this really about satisfying the needs of allies within the city of Philadelphia?  And I say that because I want to say this:  I thought it was very ironic, sadly ironic, that a lot of the hunger groups, the groups that feed the poor and low income, run food pantries, have endorsed the tax. 

And I contacted one group, and I asked them.  And their reasoning was, well because the kids will get fed.  The kids will get a meal if they’re at pre-K. 

And again I thought, the irony that you’re going to tax the parents, the food they purchase, the beverages, the 1500 grocery items, you’re going to tax that in order to put them in a program, in a school that might already be failing, that might have no impact or a negative impact long-term because you want to give them a subsidized meal.

It seems that priorities are upside down.

Lindsey:  Yeah.  I think that’s exactly right.  And just to add one more maybe cynical point to your very good point is, look, the way that you described it earlier—we’re basically taking the K-12 system and extending it down a year, maybe two years earlier. 

The Obama administration talks about “cradle to career.”  I still can’t get over that that’s language that’s used.  But, you know, cradle to career. 

If we think for a second, who does this really benefit?  You know, the teacher’s unions. They’re certainly applauding something like this.

Lindsey:  This certainly guarantees more union jobs for them, particularly in a state like Pennsylvania.  So I think we do need to take a step back, think about what’s best for families, think about what families actually want, and is it actually necessary?  Are there children in Pennsylvania and in Philadelphia who would like access to pre-K who don’t have it now, or for whom subsidies don’t cover?

And I think that’s a really good starting point.

And, lastly, I’ll add, when you do any type of government program like this, you necessarily end up crowding out the private care.

When you crowd out the provisional care, you end up limiting choices for families in the long run.  And so, I think that’s another important point to keep in mind.

Andrew:  Well, Lindsey, how do folks find out more about what you’re up to?  How do they find out what’s going on at the Heritage Foundation? 

Lindsey:  Yeah.  If you go to www.Heritage.org, click on our education tab and you’ll see all our education work there.

Jerry:  We have to talk about how does this impact the kids, the families, not just the taxes and the economics of it.

Look, we know that taxes, you want less of something, tax it more.

We know that this will drive jobs out of the city.  We know this is going to hurt the poorest residents.  We know that.  It’s a fact.  That’s the truth. 

It reminds me of this joke:  There’s an economist, a priest, and a doctor, and they’re playing a round of golf at a prestigious club outside of New York City.

Jerry:  Alright, there they are:  the economist, the priest, and the doctor, and there’s a group ahead of them, and it’s ridiculous.  These folks ahead of them are slow.  They’re hitting the ball all over the place.  It’s holding up the line.  It’s so frustrating. 

So the three, the economist, the priest, and the doctor go to the greens-keeper and say, “What the heck is going on here?” 

And the greens-keeper says, “You know what?  Those guys are three retired firefighters, and they were in an explosion in the World Trade Center on 9/11.  And, so, we let them play here for free.” 

And the priest says, of course, “You know what, I’m going to pray for those guys.”

The doctor says, “Well, you know what, maybe there’s something I can help in terms of treatment.  I’ll talk to them after the day is over.”

But the economist looks at the greens-keeper and says, “Well, why can’t they play at night?”

Jerry:  And that’s part of the problem where we’re discussing this issue.  Everyone wants to talk about only the taxes, only the economics.  The fact of the matter is that this is a false promise for kids and families.  This will not help the children because we know that this is a more complicated issue than just taxing, raising money, and opening up the schools and having more seats.  It’s much more complicated than that.

Look, I think Jim Kenney is a good man.  He ran a very unique campaign saying he’s going to be a mayor for all people of Philadelphia.  And I believe that’s the truth.  And I think Mayor Kenney should pull back his proposal.  He should bring everyone to the table, and let’s discuss how we can best serve the children and families of Philadelphia.

Andrew:  Well, this has been the LangerCast NewsBreakers special edition.  I’m Andrew Langer.  He’s Jerry Rogers.  Have a great week everybody.  Have fun and stay safe.  

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