Make Penn pay taxes. It’s a simple idea with a not so simple background and probably the least controversial idea, outside University City at least, given the Ivy League university gained billions over the course of the pandemic in its investment portfolio and endowment. Last year, the most elite school in Philly raked in $5.6 billion in investment income.
You read that right. That’s $5.6 billion with a B as in the size of the entire proposed $5.5 billion municipal budget of Philadelphia and more than double the $2.3 billion budget of the School District of Philadelphia. As Paul Prescod sees it, that’s wrong with a capital W – a letter he hopes to see on May 17 in his state senate seat Democratic primary challenge to longtime legislator Anthony Hardy Williams.
Prescod took time in between campaigning and touting union endorsements to talk about public education, challenging an incumbent, and just why the Democratic Socialists of America and Working Family Party both endorsed the 31-year-old former public school teacher, and prolific writer in the Democratic primary. More info about his policy positions and campaign can be found online.
PW has edited and excerpted the interview for clarity and flow.
Why he’s running.
Josh Kruger (JK): It’s kind of daunting to take on an incumbent that’s been around for so long. Or, is that partly why you’re running, that your opponent has been there so long and it’s time for some new perspective?
Paul Prescod (PP): I’m not someone who believes that just because someone’s been around awhile that means that they’re inherently bad. If they’re doing good things, there’s nothing wrong with that. But we have fundamental policy differences. A big motivator was my past working in the public school system as a teacher and being very active in advocacy on the issue of public education. This has been an issue for awhile, and it’s at a crisis point, a breaking point. As we’ve seen the rise of privatization and disinvestment from public schools, we need more people like public school teachers running for office.
Charter schools versus public schools: The difference.
JK: You’re drawing a difference between you and State Sen. Anthony Williams, who is a huge proponent of charter schools. Explain.
PP: My opponent has ties to Jeffrey Yass, one of the biggest Republicans bankrolling these privatization efforts who himself has ties to [former Trump education secretary] Betsy DeVos. On key issues like public education, we disagree. [Ties is putting is mildly. Williams, who in 2015’s mayoral primary got pummeled by public education advocates for receiving “almost monolithic” support from advocates for school privatization, voucher systems, and charters, including Yass. Longtime local columnist Will Bunch observed after that election that “Williams and his libertarian-approved brand of charter-school boosterism were soundly rejected by voters.” Bunch added that Yass “along with two of his partners in the Susquehanna International Group, Arthur Dantchik and Joel Greenberg invested $7 million or so” in a political action committee supporting Williams’ doomed mayoral bid.]
JK: Charter proponents call them public schools. You’re differentiating them here. Are they public or private?
PP: The issue is that they’re publicly funded but privately operated. The problem becomes not much transparency and accountability. I used to substitute teach in charters before getting my public school certification. They routinely fall short for students, students with special education needs, families. But, my issue is not families; the enemy is not parents forced to make a difficult decision to put their child in a charter school. My issue is that no parent should be forced to make that choice. Where public schools are well-funded, in rich districts, students go to public schools.
Public school funding a matter of fairness.
JK: During an interview with me back in 2015, State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) matter-of-factly said that the reason public schools were underfunded in Philly was attributable in part to GOP members of the legislature being racist. Do you agree that there’s some racial components to school underfunding?
PP: Obviously, I’m not in rooms to hear what people are saying privately. I wouldn’t doubt it, though. I think there is a racial element. People who have never spent time in Philadelphia and have stereotypes in their head about what people do and don’t deserve are part of it. Even very rural areas and places that are majority white are also suffering, though. Black and brown communities are disproportionately affected. [He’s not wrong. The current fair funding lawsuit before the State Supreme Court relied on plaintiffs in majority white districts as well as Philadelphia.]=
JK: So you’d argue that there isn’t fair funding of public education in Pennsylvania?
PP: Absolutely not. It’s very unequal in how it’s unfunded. Places Like Philly, and it’s not just Philly but they get the short end of the stick, the price per student is lower…our school buildings themselves are literally falling apart and have asbestos and mold. [This is is the heart of the question of the fair funding lawsuit, and the facts are unclear. Even think tanks working on figures showing funding per pupil across Pennsylvania aren’t quite sure what their data says. In revised data released just last week, the Urban Institute says that poor students receive 3 percent less funding and Black and Latino students receive 6 percent less funding, according to an analysis by WHYY.]
State laws limit Philadelphia’s options.
JK: Well, so Philly finds itself having to raise revenue to pay for things on its own, like free quality pre-K then. And given the state uniformity clause, we can’t just tax the rich. But the Philadelphia Beverage Tax pays for thousands of seats in PHLpreK. Do you support it?
Paul Prescod: I support the Philadelphia Beverage Tax in lieu of anything else. It’s still at its core a regressive tax against working people. Why do working people have to keep paying more than their fair share? We have to move beyond that, there’s so much wealth to be had for some while working people are being squeezed for taxes. [This is an area of agreement between Prescod and his opponent. Williams made hay out of opposing the Kenney Administration’s first year tax funding flagship programs to such an extent the Inquirer editorial board called him out. For his part, like Prescod, Williams insists he supports the programs the tax funds but argues the tax is regressive and hurts the poor and working classes. This issue reached a fever pitch during 2016’s presidential primary with Vermont senator Bernie Sanders coming out against the tax, then a proposal, as regressive and Hillary Clinton coming out in favor of it. Sanders subsequently has demanded the soda industry stop using his name and likeness in campaigns against similar taxes.]
JK: Well, the whole reason the City has the tax is because of the state constitution’s uniformity clause,which states all taxes in Pennsylvania must be uniform or flat, with everyone receiving the same rate. Otherwise, we could just tax the rich. But we can’t. So are you suggesting we get rid of the uniformity clause? I mean, where does the revenue come from?
PP: From a practical standpoint, I have no illusions about the more ambitious things that I want to achieve. It’s one thing to vote for something…it is [another] to work on issues. But many things that were once thought impossible that we now take for granted were started because people took leadership on those issues. The question always for progressives like me is how are we going to pay for it? I think we have a very clear answer. We will never be in a place where we can get the money and revenue until we actually have people pay their fair share. There are existing taxes for corporations, and we should not be giving tax breaks to them…Why are we giving Comcast tax breaks in the city? University of Pennsylvania now has a $20 billion endowment, we should change their actual tax status. They are not a non-profit. Even a modest property tax on Penn would bring in $40 million mostly for the School District of Philadelphia.
Make Penn pay taxes to raise revenue.
JK: Wait, you aren’t talking about PILOTs. The question, “Does Penn pay taxes,” comes up a lot. You’re talking about actually changing Penn’s tax exempt status outright to, what, a private company?
PP: They operate more like a private club. They’re institutions and their benefits are only accrued for members of that club. [Prescod explains his stance in an op-ed written for leftist publication Jacobin where he targets all wealthy private university endowments, not just Penn’s, arguing they’re private clubs. This would structure their status to 501(c)7 and have tax implications for a slew of things including donations.]
JK: That’s a pretty startling suggestion, yanking their nonprofit status outright and changing them to a private club.
PP: It’s hard to argue when you have a $20 billion endowment that you’re a nonprofit. The idea behind these endowments is, one thing, they are supposed to help with lower tuition or grant relief. It’s hard to argue that’s being done with Penn given how expensive it is and how tuition is increasing. [Penn currently charges $79,000 for one year of tuition plus room and board per undergraduate student.]
JK: With widening wealth inequality exacerbated during COVID, do you think the time is right to work through this?
PP: Holding these elite Ivy League institutions accountable is something that could get bipartisan support. Especially during COVID, when most working people were suffering, Comcast, Amazon, UPS did very well. Even some of Pennsylvania’s billionaires made even more because of the virus. In a post-COVID world, we have to recover from that kind of inequality.