Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Unpromising Consequences of the Pittsburgh Promise

I was out of town and away from the keyboard when the Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Superintendent of Schools Mark Roosevelt made their big announcement about the currently-unfunded "Pittsburgh Promise" college scholarship idea. The basic notion here mirrors a program currently offered in Kalamazoo Michigan, which pays the college tuition of all students who graduate from the local public school system. As stated in the Post-Gazette, "if a student goes to the district's public schools, from kindergarten through graduation, the program will pay their entire tuition and fees at any public university or community college in Michigan". Those who have receive less than the full 13 years (but no less than 4) of education from the public schools receive less money. Those who attend the schools for less than 4 years apparently receive no tuition assistance at all.

At first blush, it seems hard to argue with such a fantastically generous program. Indeed, a number of sources that I respect, such as The Burgher seem genuinely overjoyed at the prospect. One might complain, with good reason, that this plan is still unfunded. It might not have been the best idea to announce it without any funding sources lined up. And it might not even get off the ground if sufficient funding cannot be found.

One might also cast a skeptical glance at some of the details of the Kalamazoo program, which is offered to all graduates regardless of class rank, test scores, or grade point average. It could be argued that it rewards mediocrity, which is precisely the opposite of what is needed to reform most public school districts, and especially Pittsburgh's.

But still, it seems like such a fantastic way to revitalize the city. Existing middle-class families will stay here rather than move out to higher-quality suburban districts. Suburbanites, seeing this as something that could save them tens of thousands of dollars, could even be attracted to move into the city limits. It would be a very big lure.

But despite its obvious advantages, my very first reaction to this program was to see it as an enormous and impending disaster. Full disclosure is in order here. My family, like thousands of other Pittsburgh families, has elected to send our children to a private school. In part, our decision was based on concerns about the quality of public eduction, although the public elementary school for our part of the city is thought to be excellent. Many, perhaps even most of our neighbors send their children there.

But mostly, our choice came from a desire to give our children a Catholic education. My wife was educated in Catholic schools, and that is what she wanted for our children. And we simply wanted our children to learn in an environment where our faith would be a key part of their experience.

There can be no doubt that this plan, if it is executed using the Kalamazoo model, will destroy many of the private educational options within the City of Pittsburgh. I would imagine that the high-end institutions, such as Winchester-Thurston, the Ellis School, and Shadyside Academy would largely survive intact, albeit with a slightly smaller enrollment and (perhaps) a reduction in tuition. But the small parish schools and many of the mid-level options would almost certainly be forced to close their doors. Bob O'Connor's beloved St. Rosalia parish, for example, would almost certainly lose its K-8 program. Mayor Ravenstahl's alma mater, North Catholic High School, which was already thought to be considering a move to Cranberry, would also disappear.

Such developments would obviously be bad for my family. Not only are we likely to see our own school disappear, but our children would transfer into the public schools too late to receive a full K-12 education. Thus they would not be eligible to receive the full tuition benefit offered through the Pittsburgh Promise.

Apart from my personal concerns, there are also likely to be some disadvantages to the city as a whole. For example, the city would need to provide educational services to the many children who would transfer in from private schools. At the moment, these kids and their families are pure gravy to the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Their parents pay (rather high) taxes to support the school district, but require only minimal expenditures in return.

And yet, I resisted saying anything negative about the Pittsburgh Promise. Most people see the words "private school" and think of the high-end institutions where even kindergarten tuition can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and most of the families are extraordinarily well-off. It would be hard to muster much sympathy for these kids, when the Pittsburgh Promise could provide such enormous benefits to other children who would otherwise really struggle (or even fail) to pay for college. Besides, I do have my own horse in this race, and part of my reaction is likely to be based on pure self-interest.

But then I encountered this excellent post by P. V. Poplicola over at the Burgh Report. I am not the only one to have these kinds of concerns about the Pittsburgh Promise. And to be perfectly honest, his "Open Letter to Luke Ravensthal, Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh" puts the case far more eloquently than I ever could.

For example, Mr. Popicola points out, as I did above, that the Pittsburgh Promise will cause many private schools to simply fail and close their doors forever. But the damage would go further than that:

... worse yet than the threat to our private schools, is the inevitable degradation of the quality of public education that would result from the loss of private schooling expenditures. When parents choose the public schools over the private schools because of your program, they no longer pay for their children's education twice. Now, rather than merely paying school taxes and receiving nothing in exchange, the public education system will bear the weight of educating children who currently are taught in private schools at their parents' expense. Because there is no connection between school taxes and enrollment, this rush of students into the public system brought on by your largesse inevitably means one of two outcomes: either a decline in expenditure per student or an increase in school taxes.

One of the stated ambitions of your proposal is to increase interest in the Pittsburgh area by making our public schools more appealing than those in other cities. On first blush, this proposal would seem to have that effect. But if the quality of education falls because the available resources per pupil falls, the reputation of our schools will suffer. If we attempt to maintain expenditure per pupil by increasing taxes, we will have contributed further to one of the reasons most frequently cited for driving people away from Pittsburgh: our already onerous tax burden. Whether it be a decline in quality or an increase in taxes, the after-effects of your program will badly chill whatever increased interest free college tuition may have engendered in those considering Pittsburgh as a place to raise their families.
In the initial euphoria surrounding the announcement of the Pittsburgh Promise, I thought of many things. I worried about the little school that my children attend. I worried about the effects on my family. I worried about having to pull my children out of classrooms where they have formed strong and important friendships with children who do not live in the city limits. But I have to say that I didn't extend my thinking to considering how this plan might affect the tax base and instructional quality of the public school system.

P. V. Poplicola makes some very good points here. To some extent, there may be some broadening of the the tax base if wealthier families move into the district from the suburbs. But there is plenty of housing stock in the city, and thus it seems unlikely that any in-migration resulting from the Pittsburgh Promise will have an enormous affect on taxable property values (which in any case are currently frozen at the 2002 assessment levels). Since a large portion of the public school funding comes from property taxes, where will the money come from to educate these new arrivals, let alone those who are forced out of their private schools?

Mr. Popicola then goes on to uncover some potentially negative consequences to even those who one would be "helped" the most by the Pittsburgh Promise:

Even if one accepts that there are structural consequences to your program that will damage the city collectively, surely the individual souls going off to college are better for this program's existence, are they not?

Sadly no, Mayor Ravenstahl, the children are the ones who suffer most. According to a study conducted by the Rand Corporation, the quality of education in the Pittsburgh public school system is markedly below the Pennsylvania average. As of 2003, only 39% of our public school children passed a basic test of math proficiency tailored to their grade level and only 46% showed basic proficiency in reading. As noted above, the increased burden your program places on the public school system would mean either a decrease in dollars available per student or a decrease in tax base because of flight from increased taxes to off-set the decline. As a result of this drop in available resources per student, not only would Pittsburgh schools continue to score below the state average, but our scores would actually fall. Because of the effects of your program, our young graduates would find themselves, on average, less prepared for the rigors of their college studies and thus more likely to fail.

Furthermore, the proposed program disproportionately favors those demographic cohorts least in need of assistance in financing their education. The same Rand study says that African American students drop out of Pittsburgh schools at an alarming, horrifying 39% rate. This rate, an embarrassment to our city, is well above the rate at which white students drop out. Furthermore, countless studies show that there is a link between poverty and the high school drop out rate. Because it is impossible to give a free college education to a student who does not graduate from high school, a disproportionate share of grants from your program will go to white, affluent students. The result, then, is a shift of available resources away from our neediest students, toward those students who are least in need of our help.
That was yet another point that I had not considered, and it is one well worth thinking about. This program would be great for families whose kids were destined to go to college anyway. Any shortfall in the public schools' educational quality could be (partially) corrected through summer learning programs and parent-funded tutoring during the school year. But for those who would form the first generation of their families to attend college, it would likely leave them even less prepared than they would be without the Pittsburgh Promise.

To a certain extent, however, this argument is weakened by the simple fact that all of these future college students would be freed from the burden of paying tuition. As such, they would not be forced to work outside jobs to meet these financial obligations and would have more time to devote to their studies. Still, P. V. Policola has a good point. It's very difficult (perhaps even impossible) to study hard enough to pass elementary college-level calculus when you haven't been provided with a strong understanding of ninth-grade algebra.

The thing about the Pittsburgh Promise is that, as good as it sounds at first, it -- like all public policy decisions -- will have unintended consequences. Usually, these kinds of effects are not given any thought at all prior to starting up a program like this one. But they really are worth thinking about.

10 comments:

Mark Rauterkus said...

There are two major bodies of work when understanding fairy tales. One volume uses the starting words, "Once upon a time." The other volume begins with, "When elected, ..."

The Pittsburgh Promise needs to be re-branded as a "Pittsburgh Fairy Tale."

What we should do is offer college scholarships to every city resident who has 'home schooled' his or her child. I'd say a 2 to 1 ratio would work well. For every two years of home schooled education, the kid gets one year of college tuition.

For private and Catholic schools, well, there are some bus requirements and special needs efforts from the district / state. But, they should be say, 3 to 1.

The plan as hatched now is 12 to 4 (really 13 when counting K). But, I'm not sure they are counting for 4 years of college as they don't seem to count all those dollars in the expenses. So they might be at 13 to 1. ??

-- PS: Thanks for the thoughtful posting on this topic.

The Burgher said...

For the Record PVP is most definitely a dude. PVP is an eloquent dude, with a vocab that I'd say rivals the green ball rider.

Richmond K. Turner said...

I thought PVP was probably a dude, but I didn't want to assume anything. I would hope that he can avoid using a large green yoga ball as an office chair, however. At the very least, my fondest hope for him (and for all of us, really) is that we should never appear on the front page of the newspaper sitting on a large green ball while assuming what PittGirl refers to as a "trying to shit" pose.

I will ammend my post to make PVP's possession of male genitalia more clear. And thanks (as always) for the feedback.

rich10e said...

This will never happen.First things first, as Roosevelt said on KDKA/PPG Sunday news program,the Pgh school district needs to slow down the rate of dropouts.Bring their reading and math scores up to par.Is the offer of college going to entice these kids who can't read and write or do basic math problems to come back to school? I don't think so.

And where will the money come from to fund this program?Oh yeah right,foundations and non profits,the very groups who have fought tooth and nail against the PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) programs.

And why would anyone give money to Roosevelt anyhow.here's a guy who just cost the taxpayers a couple hundred thousand dollars by mishandling his personnel.And then he went out and brought a former colleague in at an exorbitant salary to do the job he had hired his first former colleague to do.And what happens if they have a falling out.Oh well,it ain't his money!

And why has Roosevelt decided to stick his 2 cents into the Mayor's election.He could have just as easily made this announcement with Bill Isler, school Board President.Maybe it is time for the Mayor to appoint the school board and handpick the Super.Whaddya think?

Richmond K. Turner said...

Is the offer of college going to entice these kids who can't read and write or do basic math problems to come back to school? I don't think so.

No, it won't. But it might bring new students into the PPS who are already destined to attend college. These kids will do their work, and they will graduate on time. Having these kids in the denominator will reduce the drop-out rate, even if the number of drop-outs remains constant.

And why would anyone give money to Roosevelt anyhow.here's a guy who just cost the taxpayers a couple hundred thousand dollars by mishandling his personnel.

If the foundations sign onto the Pittsburgh Promise -- and that's a big "if", as you point out -- they won't do it because of (or in spite of) Mr. Roosevelt. Nobody can sign onto a program like this one without committing at least four full years of funding, and probably even longer than that. Even a pilot program offered to just 3 graduating classes would last six long years, and the half-life of any Pennsylvania school superintendent is far less than that.

And why has Roosevelt decided to stick his 2 cents into the Mayor's election.He could have just as easily made this announcement with Bill Isler, school Board President.Maybe it is time for the Mayor to appoint the school board and handpick the Super.Whaddya think?

You are certainly right to be wary about seeing the school superintendent get so deeply involved in local politics. The superintendent should be a professional who seeks the best educational policies available for the students, and not a simple political hack.

Direct appointment of the superintendent by (of all people) the mayor would make it a lock-solid certainty that we would get nothing but a succession of unqualified political hacks in that position. Does anyone really want Dennis Regan, Corey O'Connor, or Darlene Harris as the Superintendent of Schools?

But even if the post was kept hack-free, direct appointment by the Mayor would make the superintendent transparently beholden to the political machine that has done so much to screw up this city.

Jonathan Potts said...

You raise many interesting points here. I'll try to respond to a few.

What if the foundations had come up with this idea on their own, or if some billionaire had made the offer, without the initiative of the public officials? Would you raise the same objection regarding the impact on private schools, or is it tht involvement of public officials, who are supposed to look out for the interests of all children and parents, that concerns you?

Arguably, any significant improvement to the public school system is going to harm private schools by drawing away students. Yes, this program could have a more dramatic effect than incremental reform, but my point remains the same. Should public school systems not bother improving themselves so to not compete with private schools? Should the Pittsburgh Public Schools be rejoicing that their enrollment has declined by nearly 10,000 students over the past eight years?

You will still have the choice of sending your children to a Catholic school. Just as the foundations will have the choice of whether to fund this program or not. No one will be compelling them to do so.

I understand that you pay school taxes and get little in return, since your children go to Catholic schools. I get even less in return, since my 15-month-old does not attend school at all. However, I consider education to be a social good. Not only do I benefit from my own education, but I benefit from living in a society in which my fellow citizens enjoy a quality education. Because a majority of children are educated in public schools, I think that we all benefit by having a good public school system. To the extent that a better public system would draw new residents to the city, that would benefit us as well.

Now, perhaps there is a conflict of interest between the city and the school district when it comes to the purpose of this program. The best thing that could happen to the school district would be a sudden influx of childless residents who would pay school taxes and not require anything in return. This program, of course, is intended to bring in families with children. And yes, given the current base-year assessment system, this would likely not increase the property tax base appreciably. On the other hand, there are other revenue streams for the district. True, property taxes are the lion's share of revenues, but while the school district has the lowest property tax rate in the county, it has the highest wage taxes. And the state provides about 35 to 40 percent of the cost of educating each student. Keep in mind that rapidly declining enrollments have left the school system with excess capacity that it cannot easily eliminate. (It can close buildings but in many cases it still has to maintain them.) The other point to remember, which I alluded to earlier, is that the municipal tax burden could be eased by the influx of residents.

I'm not convinced this is a great idea either. And there is no doubt that it is an election year ploy. I just don't buy the logic that we should be wary for fear that it might work too well.

Richmond K. Turner said...

Thanks for your comments Jonathan. I don't have a huge amount of time before departing for the holidays, but I'll do my best to respond to your key points.

What if the foundations had come up with this idea on their own, or if some billionaire had made the offer, without the initiative of the public officials? Would you raise the same objection regarding the impact on private schools, or is it tht involvement of public officials, who are supposed to look out for the interests of all children and parents, that concerns you?

An excellent question that I had not considered. But you are spot-on right that the instigation of this plan by public officials -- the mayor in particular, who should be looking out for all city families -- is something that makes it a bit worse for me. I can kind of forgive Roosevelt, since he probably sees his role as looking after his own. That being said, public school districts as they are set up in Pennsylvania have some degree of responsibility for all of the children who reside in their district, and not just the ones who are enrolled in the public schools themselves.

If the foundations had come up with this idea all on their own, I would have the same kind of concerns. I would probably do everything I could to present my argument to the donors and to attempt to expand the program to private and home schooled children. But if I couldn't convince them, then they are certainly free to spend their money as they see fit.

Taking my tax dollars out of the Pittsburgh school district would have a definite appeal at that point.

Arguably, any significant improvement to the public school system is going to harm private schools by drawing away students. Yes, this program could have a more dramatic effect than incremental reform, but my point remains the same. Should public school systems not bother improving themselves so to not compete with private schools?

In essense, the private schools compete for students with the "free" public schools already. The public schools already enjoy a huge advantage in this competition through their taxing powers and by providing a service at no cost to the consumers.

Nevertheless, they still lose some customers to private schools. This is where things get a bit interesting, though, because any "signifcant improvements in the public education" can actually benefit private schools.

For example, let's look at the Accelerated Learning Academies which got started this year. They feature longer school days, and add 10 additional school days onto the annual calendar. One can argue whether these are really improvements in the educational environment, but let's accept that this change is a good thing for the moment.

As the PPS makes incremental improvements like this one, the pressure is on for the private schools to offer something to match it. I've personally seen this kind of pressure being applied to our private school after the Accelerated Learning Academies got started. This kind of rising tide really does lift all boats.

But the Pittsburgh Promise isn't a rising tide. It's a tsunami that is simply impossible for all but the wealthiest private schools to compete against. It doesn't lift our boats; it dashes them against the rocks and breaks them into tiny splinters.

You will still have the choice of sending your children to a Catholic school.

No, actually I won't. Our school is likely to close. It's barely hanging on as it is. Other parishes are even more on the ropes than we are. And those parishes where the schools are doing very well -- St. Bede in Point Breeze comes to mind -- are already fully enrolled (some would argue far more than fully enrolled) and have no room for additional kids.

If I want to continue providing a Catholic education for my children, my only option is likely to be moving out of the city altogether, to a suburban parish that still has its school.

I consider education to be a social good. Not only do I benefit from my own education, but I benefit from living in a society in which my fellow citizens enjoy a quality education. Because a majority of children are educated in public schools, I think that we all benefit by having a good public school system.

I agree with you. But the Pittsburgh Promise isn't focused on giving us a "good public school system". It's funds will go to kids who aren't even in the system any longer. And since the recipients -- at least in the Kalamazoo program -- aren't required to meet any academic requirements to qualify, the education provided by the school system doesn't even need to get better to make this program work. As long as the PPS can hand out diplomas, even if the kids can't read them, the Pittsburgh Promise kicks in.

... there are other revenue streams for the district. True, property taxes are the lion's share of revenues, but while the school district has the lowest property tax rate in the county, it has the highest wage taxes.

This goes back to P.V. Popicola's argument, though. Property tax revenues are not likely to change as a result of the Pittsburgh Promise. That leaves these high wage taxes as the most responsive revenue stream. But at the same time, the PPS will see increased enrollment and will need additional revenue to handle it.

If there isn't any more property tax money coming in than there was before, then they only way for the district to get the extra money it needs is to boost the wage taxes, which -- as you say -- are already the highest in the county. Since these taxes are already driving people outside of the city limits, an increase will simply accelerate that exodus.

Those who do move out will be those who are both earning wages and who don't have any kids who might benefit from the Pittsburgh Promise. Out population will be split between retirees (no wages to tax) and familes with kids, niether of which is going to do much for the school districts dollar-to-student ratio.

It will be very interesting to see how this all turns out. Again, thanks for your comments.

Anonymous said...

When I heard about this program, I thought it was primarily an effort to bring people back to Pittsburgh to start their families, or to keep them from leaving after college to start families elsewhere. The youth-flight from Pittsburgh is a huge problem for our city. This would be one more incentive to get a job here, start a business here, continue your research here, start your family here.

If re-filling the city with young families is indeed part of the point, the result for Pittsburgh would be the huge wads of cash that young families spend building and filling their nests. I imagine a neighborhood like Homewood restored to its former glory -- the infrastructure is there, along with dozens of still-beautiful properties, and we all know gentrification isn't a pipe-dream. Abandoned properties don't generate tax-revenue or kids to fill the abandoned schools. Newly-gentrified neighborhoods would.

That said, growing the city is still a secondary benefit to the life-changing impact a program like the Pittsburgh Promise could have on families at the bottom of the food chain. The kids who are dropping out of school are poor. They and their families know they have little hope of paying for a four-year or even two-year stay college -- what's the incentive to stay in school when the best you can hope for after graduation is still going to be a job at McDonald's? But those same poor kids (and their parents) show up and put in the work for vocational training at places like Bill Strickland's Manchester/Bidwell center, a self-sustaining program that offers its job-training services for free, and has both foundation and corporate support.

The Manchester/Bidwell model is inspiring even to corporate-types: http://www.fastcompany.com/online/17/genius.html. Call me a bleeding-heart, but hopefulness for a better life is never something to sneer at. I'd like to think that the Pittsburgh Promise could be an even bigger step in this direction.

Richmond K. Turner said...

Wow. Whoever you are, you are really digging deep into the blog and examining some stuff that I wrote quite some time ago. I can't thank you enough for doing that, or for taking the time to comment.

So here's the thing. Where exactly is the Pittsburgh Promise these days. Have we heared anything at all about it recently? There was the big announcement, then a couple of response articles in the local press, and that was about it for quite some time.

Then the oh-so-generous teacher's union handed over a $10,000 check to the program -- not even enough to cover a single child for more than two or three semesters -- and the story came to a screeching halt. They didn't even have a bank account available to deposit the teacher union's check; they had to open one after they received it.

Oh, and by the time that that donation got made, the details of the program had changed. It was no longer a full ride to any state college. Instead, it was capped at some laughably small amount -- I think $4,000 or $5,000 -- per year.

Throw in the fact that you only get the full benefit if your child attends 13 full years of school (K-12) at the PPS, and the whole thing becomes a worthless joke.

The liklihood of people moving into the city limits, especially if their kids have already started school elsewhere, is very low. The costs of selling one home, buying another, hiring movers, redecorating, etc. will quickly eat up anything that they might save on college costs.

That's especially the case for families whose aspirations are to send their kids to colleges that are outside of the Pennsylvania public university system, since the program won't pay for anything else. In short, there won't be any gentrification of any neighborhood as a result of this plan, even in the unlikely event that it actually gets off the ground.

Instead, it's only real effect will be to decimate the low-cost private schools -- especially the dioscesan Catholic schools -- in the city. Nobody is going to go to the trouble to move into the city for this piddling beneift, but those who are already here will see a real benefit to pulling their kids out of the local parish school and sending them to PPS instead. No more tuition costs, and some degree of help to pay for college; it's an easy decision to make.

And how will all those parochial school refugees affect the PPS? They will increase enrollment, but there will be no new tax revenue. After all, their parents already live here and already pay their tax bill to the PPS.

I just can't see the overall effects of this program as being worth the destruction it will cause.

EdHeath said...

Just a couple of quick points about this post, which I came to from your link on the post about the failure of the city to fund Pittsburgh Promise.

One question, do you think families would be willing to have their kids go some distance to private Catholic Schools. For example, you mentioned St Bedes has full enrollment *now*. Its enrollment might drop some if Pgh Promise actually took off, and so kids from closing schools might flow into other still open Catholic schools. It would certainly be less convenient, but it might reduce somewhat the consequences for the private schools, by allowing the remaining schools to have full enrollment.

And I just wanted to point out the unintended consequence of another program, this one at the federal level. The educational credits the Clinton administration championed, the Hope Credit (providing a $1500 tax credit for the first 2 years of school, including two year Associates programs) and the Lifetime Learning credit, have had the unintended consequence of fueling the price inflation of tuition costs tremendously. These two year trade schools, which used to cost a couple of thousand, now are nine and fifteen thousand. I do people’s taxes, and just tonight I saw a tax statement for the Western School, and the tuition was 16 grand.

Now, I can’t say what effect the Pittsburgh Promise might have on statewide tuitions, whether it might depress trade school tuitions, for example (because college would be cheap). But unless the state schools have made some sort of agreement with the Pittsburgh School Board, the state schools might start raising their tuitions, to reap the bounty the school board appears poised to give them. Maybe Pittsburgh Promise will limit itself the giving the equivalent of CCAC’s tuition to students.