Monday, March 19, 2007

Whither the Pittsburgh Promise?

The longer this goes on, the more it looks like the Pittsburgh Promise is suffering the fate of most promises made by Interim Mayor Luke "The Debate Chicken" Ravenstahl. Announced with great fanfare in mid-December 2006 amid an avalanche of generalities and an all-too-typical dearth of specifics, the Pittsburgh Promise now seems to be withering from neglect. The program is woefully underfunded, having received only a single public donation of a token amount. And this weekend's announcement by one of our region's biggest charitable donors makes it seem all the more likely that the Pittsburgh Promise will go unfulfilled.

The basic notion behind the plan, at least at first glance, seemed quite positive. Many of those who heralded its announcement felt that the Pittsburgh Promise was likely to provide an enormous boost for our city's schools and our children's future. If it ever gets off the ground, the program's stated aim is to ensure that any graduate of the Pittsburgh Public Schools -- regardless of test scores, GPA, class rank, or academic record -- will be able to attend college without having to worry about paying for it.

Like all scholarship programs, it of course would have some strings attached. Or at least, it apparently would, if the Pittsburgh Program ever advances to the stage where its full details can be made available to the public. What we do know is that the Kalamazoo Promise, on which the Pittsburgh program is supposed to be based, has certain restrictions. We can only assume that those restrictions would be mirrored here.

To be eligible for 100% funding, a child would likely have to attend the Pittsburgh Public Schools for all 13 years (K-12) of their primary and secondary education. And tuition would be provided only for those who chose to attend one of Pennsylvania's state-run colleges and universities. But aside from those rather understandable limits, the program seemed to have great potential to attract college-bound students back into the Pittsburgh Public School system. Skeptics, including myself, have remarked on some of the unintended consequences that are likely to flow from this effort. But its intended goals are certainly worthy and admirable.

No matter how promising the Pittsburgh Promise may have seemed when it was initially introduced, there were a number of worries about it right from the start. For some reason -- perhaps to distract public attention away from the Dennis Regan resignation and the demotion of Police Commander Catherine McNeilly -- Interim Mayor Ravenstahl and School Superintendent Mark Roosevelt announced the program before lining up even a single source of funding to support it. As some observers noted at the time, the timing of the announcement seemed (at best) very strange, and it was in no way clear the Pittsburgh would be able to keep its promise.

Still, supporters of the program had some reason to hope. From what he said at the introductory news conference, Interim Mayor Ravenstahl made it seem like he had done his homework:

... city and school leaders approached foundations, which could be tapped for $5 million to $7 million a year.

"It's been very well received by the foundation community," Mr. Ravenstahl said.
And, while they weren't ready to promise anything at that moment, the major philanthropic foundations seemed willing to give the matter some consideration:

Foundations that typically fund educational efforts weren't ready to sign on yesterday.

"Nothing is more vital to the city's future than the educational opportunities available for our children, and the mayor and superintendent are to be commended for their focus," Heinz Endowments President Max King indicated in a written statement. "While we haven't had an opportunity to study this issue in any depth, we look forward to working with these officials to examine its potential."
Maybe that wasn't the strongest start for a program with such high ambitions, but there was at least some reason to hope. By the very next morning, however, there were already some clouds on the horizon, as indicated by a Tribune-Review article headlined, "City Foundations Can't 'Promise' Funding". Some of the local foundations seemed dead-set against the idea, others seemed generally positive while remaining non-committal, and others were keeping their cards quite close to their vests. For example, representatives of the Heinz Endowments didn't seem willing to go one way or the other:

The Heinz Endowments, which gave away $53.1 million in 2004, the latest data available online, awarded grants to two scholarship programs -- the Negro Educational Emergency Drive, which provides scholarships to black students, and the Extra Mile Foundation, which gives scholarships for students to attend Catholic elementary schools in poor neighborhoods.

"Our history of funding scholarships is extremely limited," said Doug Root, a spokesman for the Heinz Endowments.

While Heinz rarely supports scholarships, he said the foundation is "interested in exploring" the Pittsburgh Promise.
Roughly one month later, the Pittsburgh Promise received its first -- and, to date, only -- donation. The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers donated all of $10,000 to it, not even enough to fund three semesters of one student's college tuition. While this was start, it brought along with it some ominous signs. For example, despite the fact that the Pittsburgh Promise had been announced nearly four weeks earlier, the Pittsburgh Public Schools hadn't even done so much as open a bank account to hold its funds. Moreover, as others pointed out at the time, the reports about this donation suggested that the scope of the program was being significantly reduced. Instead of covering all the costs of a four-year post-secondary education, the Pittsburgh Promise now appeared to be capped at just $5,000 per year.

The lack of funding and this apparent change to program's benefit structure did not go completely unnoticed by the public. As Joanna Deming, a letter writer to the Post-Gazette, noted a several weeks after this donation was announced:

I am concerned that "The Pittsburgh Promise" is nothing more than a political move ("Tuition Grants a Lure for City Schools: Plan Aims to Put Students in College, Draw People to City," Dec. 14). The mayor and superintendent announced the program before they had a plan in place to implement it. This lack of planning was evident in their response to the $10,000 donated by the teachers union this month. In the Jan. 12 article, Superintendent Mark Roosevelt stated that they "don't really even have an account set up to handle the donation."

I fear the Pittsburgh Promise has already become so watered down that its impact will be minimal to none. This program is allegedly modeled after the Kalamazoo Promise. However, what makes the Kalamazoo Promise so effective that it provides "each Kalamazoo Public School graduate with the opportunity to attend post-secondary education with up to a 100 percent tuition scholarship" (direct quote from the program's Web site).

The amount of estimated support to be "promised" for Pittsburgh Public School graduates is dwindling. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl originally said the Pittsburgh Promise would come in after existing financial-aid opportunities, such as Pell Grants. He said, "The maximum level of aid might be pegged to the cost of a state run university." However, more recently a much lower figure, $5,000 per student, was suggested.

The Pittsburgh Promise, done effectively, is not just "a scholarship program"; it is a promise that money will no longer be a factor for students attending college from the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

I encourage the Post-Gazette, along with its readers, to hold our mayor and superintendent responsible for keeping their promise to the fullest extent, rather than merely profiting from it.
And now here we are, more than two months later, and we haven't heard anything at all about the Pittsburgh Promise in all that time. But if you were paying close enough attention to the news over the weekend, and were able to do some reading between the lines, you would have noticed that things are looking far from promising.

As reported in both the Tribune-Review and the Post-Gazette, the Heinz Endowments announced a major restructuring of their donation strategy. The good news is that their new strategy includes a particular focus on public education within the City of Pittsburgh. As the Tribune-Review reported:

One beneficiary is Pittsburgh Public Schools. Last year, the district received $5 million from Heinz, and King said it probably will get more this year.

"I'm grateful for the Heinz Endowments' emphasis on supporting our work," city schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt said.
And yet, despite this increased support for public education, one cannot help but notice that there is no mention made of the Pittsburgh Promise:

As part of helping the school district, Heinz will give more money to after-school and neighborhood programs that help children -- especially those in areas near the eight accelerated-learning academies, schools with a longer school day and school year. Some of them are on the North Side, Garfield, the Hill District and Squirrel Hill.

"Over the last 40 or 50 years, as neighborhoods and families become weaker, more and more of society's burden falls on schools," King said. "We think, in order for schools to become successful, they have to be supported by community programs."
The Heinz Endowments constitute the second-biggest philanthropic foundation in the area, and according to the Post-Gazette, the organization is one of the 50 largest such foundations nationwide. They hand out $60 million in grants every year, and this change of strategy means that nearly $20 will be dedicated to projects within Pittsburgh alone. Their support would appear crucial to the success of an ambitious program such as the Pittsburgh Promise. Yet there remains no indication that they have any interest in participating in it.

It seems clear, given the Ravenstahl administration's ample gift for self-promotion, that the Pittsburgh Promise is in grave danger. If there was even the hint of a suggestion that any major donors were onboard with the program, we would have surely heard about it by now. The silence is deafening, and the Promise -- yet another promise -- is being broken.


Mark Rauterkus said...

High School Reform is on the agenda of the Pgh Public Schools. And, the Pgh Promise is in that mix. Plus, there is to be a new employee hired by the Pgh Public Schools to be a post-graduate guidance guy/gal to help with the success of the grads in their pursuit of a college education.

So, it "aint" dead yet. But it is dead to me as far as a promise goes. Frankly, it came into this world more like a "still born," so sad to say.

Perhaps the kids who graduate can each get a 1-800 phone number to call this newly hired post-grad guy/gal when they flunk out from wherever they are attending. There should be enough funds in the Pgh Promise account for one-way bus tickets home for floundering college students. That might turn the tide as to our talented youth departing the region. Then 13th and 14th grade can come at CCAC as academic maturity occurs.

The Pgh Promise numbers are not there in terms of dollars nor in terms of performance with test scores. The capacity for academic excellence in early college careers for the majority of the city school's graduates is absent due to the quality of the general education we unleash to our 7th to 12th graders.

Smitty said...

It is common knowledge in school board circles that Mark Roosevelt allowed himself to be bullied into a premature announcement of his Pittsburgh Promise Plan. The program was still very much in its planning stages when Mayor Ravenstahl harassed and harangued Roosevelt into announcing it.Certainly Luke needed a public diversion from his embrace of Denny Regan.

Anonymous said...

A little birdie reports that in between stumping for Opie, Denny Regan is working as a security guard in West Virginia, for a certain casino...maybe he's trying to build his resume for his triumpant return to the public safety director post?

Malificent said...

Another great post.

Empty promises.

Empty proposals (do we have any details on Luke's tax abatement plan yet?)

Rapidly emptying city coffers.

If you're riding with Ravenstahl, you're riding on empty.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that if there is a debate Luke will get pinged on this? College educations for hundreds with a whole ten grand in the bank?

Richmond K. Turner said...

Well, since I'm beginning to think that there won't be any debates -- or that there will be one, but with only quetions such as, "Boxers of brief?" permitted -- I would have to say that "pings" of any kind are rather unlikely.