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Soda tax-funded preK will drive Philadelphia’s future | Opinion


March 13, 2019
Meyata McMichael
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHLpreK has transformed the lives of my students, and it’s all thanks to the city’s sweetened drink tax. In 2016, leaders in Philadelphia united behind a bold approach to provide new opportunities to its most vulnerable and underprivileged kids to break the cycle of poverty, injustice, and inequity.

The tax has generated $137 million in revenue, which has already had a significant impact.

More than 2,000 new pre-K seats have been created, per the city’s count — with several thousand more on the way — and nearly half of these new seats have the highest quality ratings as identified by Pennsylvania’s Keystone Stars program. More than 200 new teachershave been hired at early childcare centers, two-thirds of which are owned by women and minorities.

New community schools have been built, and the city is starting a massive rebuilding project that will upgrade parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers.

In my community, we’re proud to live in a city that understands the importance of investing in our kids, especially from an early age. Every family deserves the ability to give our kids a healthy start — no matter where they live, how much money they make, or where they are from.

That’s not just a nice-sounding talking point; it’s what science tells us. Brain development and emotional connections start early — in the first few years of life, babies’ brains formmore than 1 million new neural connections every second. In pre-K, we set the foundation for academic success by focusing on kids’ social and emotional learning, building such skills as paying attention, taking turns, and following directions. The return on that investment is significant: a landmark 20-year study found that children with greater “social competence” in kindergarten were more likely to get a college degree and have a full-time job in their 20s, and less likely to have been arrested or recently used drugs.

By contrast, children’s physical development, brain development, and social and emotional growth are all at risk when they face adverse and stressful circumstances, which can be exacerbated when they’re not in school. They have a harder time in the classroom, more trouble making friends, and face trust issues and low self-confidence. They are also at higher risk of various diseases and behaviors, such as substance abuse, depression, obesity, heart disease, and smoking.

The compelling, evidence-backed case for quality pre-K reached a crucial benchmark not only in Philadelphia but across Pennsylvania: voter consensus. In a poll funded by the Pre-K for PA campaign last year, Republican firm Harper Polling found 94 percent of likely voterssaid pre-K helped people live a healthy and productive life. Cutting across party lines, 75 percent of respondents supported increased preschool funding for children aged 3 and 4.

Kids who are forced to wait until kindergarten or later to start school are behind from day one. Pre-K remedies that. It’s where kids not only learn their ABCs and how to count, but also how to navigate the world around them. Previously in Philadelphia, only kids whose parents could afford to send them to pre-K were able to get ahead. The tax ensures that the benefits of are extended to those who need it most: kids from low-income families, many of whom are minority children in lower-funded districts.

Other metrics show the tax is working. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper from Mathematica Policy Research found that kids who drank about 20 ounces of soda a day prior to the tax dropped their added sugar consumption by 22 percent. And since the tax took effect, city data show that new unemployment claims filings for impacted industries, like grocery stores and restaurants, has actually decreased by 10 percent in Philadelphia and 8 percent in surrounding counties.

The bottom line for my students and thousands of other children in Philadelphia, the sweetened drink tax has been a lifeline. As a proud Philadelphian, I urge our city’s leaders to continue it.

Meyata is a PHLPreK instructor at Beautiful Beginnings Childcare Center, Inc. Her position became available in October 2018 as a result of slots awarded to the Holmesburg school through funding from the sweetened drink tax.