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“Promise”-Keeping: Developer of the Kalamazoo Initiative Cautions that a Promise Is No Quick Fix PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Local News
Wednesday, 07 November 2007 10:28

To the backers of the Davenport Promise initiative, the developer of the model on which it is based has some words of caution:

The Promise is not a sure thing. It's not a silver bullet. And it needs to be part of a larger community-improvement push.

Janice Brown was superintendent of the Kalamazoo, Michigan, public schools when that community's Promise was created two years ago and now serves as the program's spokesperson. (She refuses to call it a "program," by the way.) In Kalamazoo, a private, anonymous donation is being used to provide money in perpetuity for college education for all the students in the city's public schools.

In Davenport, an advisory group has tailored the program to this community, and is exploring the idea of a ballot initiative that would redirect Davenport's local-option sales tax to the Promise and public safety. (See "Building a Better Promise," River Cities' Reader Issue 654, October 10-16, 2007.)

Although Brown is the public face of the Kalamazoo Promise, she said in an interview last week that nobody from Davenport has contacted her. Furthermore, she said that one shouldn't read too much into the program's early successes - such as a one-year enrollment increase of nearly 10 percent in Kalamazoo.

"You'll never get me to say that two years of results on the Kalamazoo Promise are conclusive," she said. "The local citizens here understand that we are in this for the long term, that the two years of results that we have are preliminary, and that we have to study those results and make mid-course corrections as we go along, or we will not be successful."

She emphasized that the Promise only addresses one area in a community. "It is not a program. Kalamazoo Promise is just that - a promise of a college education. What is greatly needed has really nothing to do with Kalamazoo Promise. But what the Kalamazoo Promise has done is sort of pie-in-the-face kind of awareness of all the work that needs to be done in this community ... on behalf of its children in terms of four areas": education, community support for education, economic development, and city, county, and state programs.

Promise targets only one area - expanding the educational commitment of the community from 12th grade to college graduation - and it's not comprehensive, dealing only with the affordability of college.

"The community has to understand deeply that a high-school education is no longer enough," she said. "The system of K-12, which was created 200 years ago, is absolutely archaic in terms of what people need to learn, and at the least, they have to have a bachelor's degree."

In other areas, she said, communities need to provide all their children with "all the support systems that students that are advantaged have," including health care, mental-health care, child care, after-school care, food, mentoring, and tutoring. Some of those come from government programs, and some from citizens. Some are monetary commitments, while others involve people's time.

She noted that one analysis found all those support systems to be expensive propositions. "With the needs of our children, it might take as much money and as many resources to get children to the Promise as the Promise itself costs," she said.

And she stressed that it's a community commitment: "Every single citizen that you stop on the street and ask, ‘What are you doing for the Kalamazoo Promise?' must have an answer."

Brown said that a ballot initiative is a good way to ensure community buy-in. If it's approved by voters, citizens actually have a monetary investment in the program's success.

Furthermore, she said, the Promise program cannot be sustained if the larger community can't provide jobs for the people who want them.

One difference between the most recent Davenport proposal and the Kalamazoo initiative is that organizers here want to ensure that Promise money doesn't reduce the amount of financial aid for which students are eligible.

Kalamazoo is a "first dollar" program, meaning that need-based aid is reduced by the Promise commitment. "They could make it based on second dollar [in Davenport], or after other scholarship programs have been explored," Brown said. "That makes it very, very complicated. I wouldn't recommend it, but I think it can be done."

Brown said that neighboring school districts could be hurt financially in the short run by a Promise program, but that it could be a long-term benefit to the larger community. "If they have a lot of kids going to Kalamazoo public schools, they lose revenue," she said of other school districts in the same area. "If I get 40 of their kids, multiply that by 8,000 bucks [of state aid], you're talking about some big money.

"The issue for them is trying to make sure that they have a quality school district that wouldn't cause their families to want to move back into the [Kalamazoo] school district. And it has caused, I think, a healthy competition."

She also said that leaders of surrounding school districts have been supportive of the program, in part because it has been successfully positioned "as a regional economic-development initiative. ... A deteriorating, crime-ridden, overrun community in the urban center of the community has a very negative effect [on outlying areas]. [Understanding] that takes some pretty enlightened thinking."

In Davenport, the members of the Promise exploratory committee have been explicit that they're participating as parents, grandparents, and community members rather than as representatives of their employers. "You can say you're not the superintendent, or you're not the CEO, and you don't represent an organization," Brown said. "I don't know who you're trying to kid. ... You are who you are, and you work for who you do."

Davenport leaders might be sensitive to the fact that their boards haven't formally supported the proposal, but Brown said institutional backing is important. "They should be" representing their employers and their boards, she said.

In Kalamazoo, she added, "everybody knows it's everybody's business, and they better jump on the bandwagon, because there's a lot to do to make this work."

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