Several City Council members want Mayor Kenney to add an income cap to his universal prekindergarten program to ensure it benefits the city's poorest residents.
"Fundamentally, I'm trying to understand why we're subsidizing people who can afford to pay for slots," Council President Darrell L. Clarke said at Tuesday's budget hearing. "It's not normally what . . . government does."
Otis Hackney, the mayor's director of education, said low-income families would have priority under Kenney's plan because the city would draw from the list of families living below 300 percent of the federal poverty line first.
"It would take a lot of work to exhaust that list," Hackney said. "And we'd have to create a number of seats for those children, so to exhaust that list means we've done our job really, really well."
Hackney said the administration was open to discussing an income cap.
More than 70 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in Philadelphia qualify for state-subsidized child care, which typically means they live in a family of four making less than $73,000 a year.
Kenney wants to expand pre-K to cover both the 17,000 3- and 4-year-olds living below the poverty line as well as the 9,000 living above it.
"If we exclude the 25 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in the city who don't qualify currently, it wouldn't be moving the city toward universal pre-K," said Anne Gemmell, the city's director of prekindergarten.
Gemmell said research shows that pre-K benefits every child and that children do better in mixed-income classrooms. She noted that families living on the edge of the poverty line might not be able to afford private pre-K.
"The reality is that many families, even around the 300 percent federal poverty guideline, really struggle to pay for quality pre-K," Gemmell said. "We're adopting strategies to prioritize the children who already qualify. We don't imagine exhausting the list in the first three years of the rollout."
The city says it will provide $8,500 per child to cover 6,500 children over the first three years. Kenney wants to pay for those slots with revenue from a sugary-drinks tax.
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said she would insist on an income cap for pre-K if the program is funded by a tax she thinks unfairly targets low-income communities.
"In light of the fact that we're looking to fund this with a tax that disproportionately impacts poor people, I just want to make it clear that an income cap is unfortunately a necessity if we're going to really prioritize this," she said at the hearing. "Who's paying the tax and then who's going to benefit? . . . We all know that when we map the providers, where we have the need is disproportionately in poor communities."
New York City, which has one of the largest pre-K programs in the nation, does not have an income threshold. Neither does Chicago or Washington. Seattle and San Antonio have income limits or hardship requirements for participation.