April 29, 2009

The Racine Promise: How three cities pulled it off

Wingspread Panel: From left: Carole Johnson, Johnson Foundation;
Saleem Ghubril, Pittsburgh; Robert Jorth, Kalamazoo; Racine's
Aron Wisneski; Tom Dabertin of Hammond; Noel Radomski, Madison

When Aldermen Aron Wisneski and Greg Helding first proposed something called the Racine Promise -- a proposal to pay the college tuition of all graduates of Racine high schools -- the comments on the Journal Times' website came fast and furious. Seventy-three comments were quickly appended to that first story, on Nov. 3, 2008, most of them negative. They're still there.
It's "preposterous," said one. "What a joke," said another. And, "Here's a promise for you, Wisneski -- you are so out of here in the next election." "Understand one thing. Free education does not bring jobs here. You need a lesson in economics," said another. And, "The only thing this idea will do is draw people to Racine who can't afford to send their kids to college in the first place. Basically, just moving more economically depressed people into the city for the freebie." And so it went...
It's too bad the folks behind those opinions couldn't all have been at Wednesday's Wingspread briefing, and heard from representatives from three communities that already have created such programs. They would have had to eat their words.

For almost two hours, about 70 community officials and business leaders heard from and questioned, spokesman for "promise" programs operating in Kalamazoo, MI, where "The Kalamazoo Promise" started this movement three years ago; Pittsburgh, PA, and Hammond, IN. The programs are similar in purpose, though not identical; the results are all the same: Improvements in school performance, in the numbers of kids going to college, in business, in jobs, in home sales.

The Racine proposal was brought forth by Wisneski and Helding, who first saw it mentioned in the book, "Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism," by Richard Longworth. (Dare I mention here that former Mayor Gary Becker assigned that book to council members on his fifth anniversary as mayor? Well, he did, in April 2008. Ed note: Becker actually learned about the book from Wisneski and Helding.)

Wisneski said he was reading the book's section about Kalamazoo "reeling from plant closings," and then experiencing a "housing boom," and "parents moving back," as Kalamazoo Promise got under way. "Greg Helding called me and said, "Why can't we do something like that here?" It was, he said, "a societal epiphany," the realization that they had found a really "big idea," an "AHA! moment."

Noel Radomski, director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, volunteered to help Racine study the issue, "look at all the different models and design something that will work here." Because, regardless what is done or not done, "educational attainment" is needed in the Rust Belt; "This is not your granddaddy's Racine" when it comes to filling a job, he said.

And so, Racine heard short presentations from three cities that already promise college tuition to all of their high school graduates.

First up, Robert Jorth, executive administrator of the Kalamazoo Promise, which began in 2005. The program pays up to 100% of the tuition and fees charged to Kalamazoo high school graduates, as they attend any college or university in Michigan: students get 65% if they just attend a Kalamazoo high school, and up to 100% of the cost of 130 credit hours of college if they attended K-12 in Kalamazoo. Any program; any course of study. "We want this to fit the student. It's not about how many we get into college, it's how many get through college," Jorth said.

Of equal interest are the program's "strategic priorities," which go beyond student achievement. There are four: Economic development, urban vitality, student support and Pre-K-16 education. Kalamazoo had a high poverty rate, Jorth said, but "donors believe that if we invest in education, the economic vitality of the community will be enhanced." So far, so good: an $84 million school improvement bond issue passed, the largest in Michigan; the city, which had been losing jobs for 17 years saw growth of 5,000 jobs in 2008; unemployment is the lowest in the region; population is growing; housing sales are up. The city has a population of 77,000.

Even school districts in the county -- whose students are not part of the Kalamazoo Promise -- are passing bond referenda and improving; and county tax revenues are up, "attributed to Promise-related construction."

Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, which started just one and 1/2 years ago, had a similar story. The scholarships, he said, "are just the maraschino cherry on top of the sundae." The program has brought a public school reform agenda: "we no longer say Pittsburgh public schools are excellent for an urban school district." No qualifier, thank you very much. And finally, Pittsburgh sees safer neighborhoods, despite economic difficulties that afflict 60% of the school population. Pittsburgh's scholarships, too, are paid on a sliding scale: 75% for those who just attended local high schools;l 85% if the student also went through local middle school; 95% for elementary school and 100% for K-12. Pittsburgh, a city of 310,000 people (down from 700,000 a few decades ago), has 28,000 school students.

Pittsburgh's scholarships started at $5,000 a year maximum, but in 2012 will go to $10,000. They can be used at any public or private college in the state, including faith-based, trade or community colleges. Or even at the University of Pennsylvania. It started out paying only tuition and fees, but now covers books, room and board, etc.

Tom Dabertin spoke about College Bound, the program Hammond, IN, adopted in 2006. To put the community into perspective, it is the home of US Steel, which now has 6,000 workers doing what 35,000 used to do. Its program, too, pays 100% of graduate's tuition, but to qualify for the scholarship students must have a 3.0 GPA, or 1,000 on their SAT. Hammond has 77,000 residents and 13,000 school students: 9,000 in public schools and 4,000 in private or parochial schools.

Hammond also has an interesting wrinkle: scholarships are only offered to families that own a home in the city (only 63% of Hammond's families own their own homes). While Hammond offers scholarships to Hammond students even if they graduated from nearby community high schools, it's the home ownership and residency requirement that defines a Hammond student.
"People are interested in buying a home in Hammond for the first time in 30 years, Dabertin said, doing the math: "If you have two kids and buy a $150,000 home, that's a $66,000 benefit we're providing." And if you have four kids... For families living in rental units, the city has a $5,000 assistance program for home ownership. Scholarship recipients must reapply each year, and prove continued home ownership and residency by parents.

Hammond requires that its scholarship be used within 16 months of high school graduation, and students have just five years to finish, at any Indiana public or private college or university, not trade schools. Recipients must also provide 40 hours of community service a year. Those limitations are are compensated for by the program's generosity: up to $33,000 per student.

Interestingly enough, the negativity that greeted the program here in Racine was matched in Pittsburgh. Ghubril recalled jumping up when he saw a picture in the local newspaper with the mayor and school superintendent announcing the program. "I said, 'This is the most important photo ever appearing in the paper.' " Others, he said, were less excited and gave the announcement "lots of mockery." As in, "Ha, ha, ha, the mayor and superintendent are talking out of their a--."

So the city hired McKinsey and Company, the management consulting firm, to get an independent report on what the program might provide -- or not. "After nine months, the city concluded it had to do it."

Okay, fine, I hear you all asking. But what about the costs? Each of these cities has a different funding mechanism. Kalamazoo's is unquestionably the best: Anonymous donors contributed what some say is $500 million to fund the program. (Kalamazoo was the home of Upjohn, which made many, many multi-millionaires when it was sold.) Hammond's is funded by tax revenue, some $3 million a year, all provided from the city's "riverboat casino the size of an aircraft carrier." Those funds, mostly raised from a $2 per person admission charge, were earmarked for economic development -- and objections to its use for the scholarship program were eliminated when the economic benefits were totalled. Pittsburgh, according to Ghubril, also has "a lot of old money -- traced back to the steel and coal days." The city says its program will require $250 million to fund itself in perpetuity; it received a $100 million commitment from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and has to raise the rest. "We're trying really, really hard not to use public dollars," he said.

Wisneski said Racine "should go after as many private dollars as possible." But he said the city "shouldn't be afraid to have a bake sale" ... and there are a lot of retired teachers who care about the city's students. "When they see an idea with true vision, they're willing to share."

Is speed of the essence? Well, yes and no. Jorth, of Kalamazoo, said "a couple of hundred" cities have contacted him already. Dabartin said Green Bay and Madison have looked over Hammond's program. Many more are considering it. So won't cities with such programs then lose their competitive advantage? No, said, Jorth: "We don't lose our competitive advantage is everyone is educating their youth."

"If you wait," said Radomski, "you'll be at a distinct disadvantage."

Taking it all in, among others, were Mayor Tom Friedel and Racine Unified School District Superintendent Jim Shaw. I didn't have time to talk to them after the panel discussion, but I could tell what they both were thinking: "If only..."


  1. "We're trying really, really hard not to use public dollars," he said.

    Funny grammar, vivid foreshadowing . . .

  2. . . . and by the way, did the gentlemen from Pittsburg and Kalamazoo come here on their own dime because they care so much about our children, or are they getting paid trips (honorariums too?) all over the country? Are they sitting on billions of dollars worth of intellectual property too? Soryy, just kidding about the last one -

  3. Maybe we should bring in some folks from Murfreesboro...I hear they have a groovin' artists program there...

  4. I was all for this when I was tod there would be no public money, then I was a little worried when I found out that grants and Fed money was being looked for, now I am 90% convinced that public money (Taxes) were going to fund this all along.

  5. And lets ask CNH and Twin Disk to write checks today! I am sure they will belly up right away, then all the artest in the Uptown will want to help too! Better have RPD on hand to keep order

  6. The poster, pictured in the story, notes that moral is up in Kalamazoo. That's great. But how is the morale I wonder.

    OK, on a more serious note, I do need to point out, as Colt already has, that the Racine Promise included the promise of NO taxpayer funds. It is only a matter of time before we can properly call this the Racine Lie.

  7. Free money for everybody! Party on!

  8. The negative mind of a blogger shows some real lack of comprehension on this matter. Some show resentment because they have student loans themselves. How small thinking is that!

    We paid for all our kids to go through college because we were able to do so. Others can't. They should be given every opportunity if they are willing to work for it.

  9. Work does not equal more of my tax money

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  12. good post and nice blog, I really like this type of interesting articles keep it up.