October 11, 2013

There shouldn’t be any controversy surrounding D.C. Council member David Catania’s “Promise” initiative. But you never know. Some folks might actually believe that it’s scandalous to make children and their future the city’s top investment priorities.

Fortunately, those folks are likely to be in the minority. So when Catania (I-At Large) next week introduces his “DC Promise Establishment Act of 2013,” which would create a framework for providing money for college to thousands of D.C. families, expect a rush of people who want to sign up. That’s because, as Herbert Tillery, executive director of the College Success Foundation, puts it, “This is a great thing to do for the city.”

Education has always been perceived as the great equalizer. In the District, however, simply flashing a high school diploma won’t get you very far. Consider that wards with some of the highest household incomes — wards 2 and 3, for example — also are places where large numbers of people have post-secondary degrees. Ward 8, with the lowest income, has the fewest young adults with such degrees. The need for specialized training or, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree isn’t likely to change.

“That we can be separated by six or seven miles and have that degree of income inequality is an affront to our shared values,” Catania, who chairs the council’s education committee, told me this week. How, he asked, can people in a city with such disparities form a common bond? “It comes through continuum of opportunity.”

“The needy kids in D.C. are really needy. Anything that we as a city can do to help them is very important,” said Peter MacPherson, a Ward 6 resident and public education advocate.

“We have to make sure [the legislation] will, in fact, help poor and immigrant kids,” said Tillery, who wasn’t speaking in his official capacity.

The DC Promise initiative would establish a fund to provide college grants and scholarships to public school students — traditional or charter — who entered at least by ninth grade and stayed enrolled continuously until graduation. Students would be eligible for up to $20,000 per academic year, but that would be paid to a college or university only after they’ve been accepted for full- or part-time study. At least 48 months of residency in the District would be required prior to receiving any funds. Further, family incomes could not exceed $250,000.

“If we don’t do something, we are going to have to pay for it through incarceration or welfare or these other negative ways,” said Tillery, who was deputy mayor for operations under Anthony A. Williams.

“This would be helping to change the trajectory out of poverty not only for these kids but for future generations,” Tillery continued, adding that support services for the students will help to ensure they graduate from college.

Years ago, District leaders were able to persuade Congress to provide funds to help high school graduates attend colleges outside the city. But federal sequestration has imperiled the Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) program. Still, TAG would be not supplanted but augmented by DC Promise.

While he doesn’t mention this, DC Promise is not your average scholarship program. It has the potential for strengthening the District’s economic health by attracting families to the city and expanding the public school population. Since students who enter in sixth grade would receive the maximum financial benefit, the program would serve as a kind of recruitment tool for the city’s middle schools; currently, many families leave the public school system after fifth grade.

Equally important, the initiative would prevent the brain drain that is encouraged, albeit unwittingly, by TAG, which provides grants for students to attend out-of-state schools without the requirement they maintain any connection to the District. DC Promise, on the other hand, would require recipients to maintain their residence in the city throughout their college career.

Other jurisdictions, including Washington state and Kalamazoo, Mich., have Promise programs that have been quite successful. There is evidence, said Catania, of a reduction in truancy, an increase in graduation rates and greater access to college. Still, he is quick to caution that the initiative is “not a panacea” and every detail has not been “prescripted.”

The initiative won’t be cheap. At full implementation, it could cost as much as $75 million annually. A finite calculation has yet to be conducted, however. Still, such an expenditure might cause sticker shock for a city considering changes to its per-pupil education-funding formula, even as it deals with the decisions of an erratic Congress that could affect the economic vitality of the region. Nevertheless, using a long lens, there is little question the District’s children are worth the money.

With a $10 billion budget, the city should be able to find the funds. “We’ve done enough small thinking in our city,” said Catania. “If we can’t find 1 percent [in the budget] for our future, shame on us.”

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com