Kalamazoo's stimulus package

By Conor Williams
Friday, December 3, 2010

As you may know if you followed the America's Next Great Pundit Contest: I'm a proud product of Kalamazoo, Mich. (Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo. You can buy a T-shirt that confirms it.) And if you've ever heard of Derek Jeter, Greg Jennings, Bell's Beer or Rogaine, you can thank Kalamazoo's 80,000 residents living at the corner of I-94 and US-131, near the Rust Belt's buckle.

My home town has even more to offer. As communities across the country try to figure out what to do about falling property values, struggling schools and other symptoms of an ailing economy, Kalamazoo has a daring solution.

It had a head start, because the economic downturn came early to southwestern Michigan. In the 1990s, pharmaceutical jobs left for New Jersey, auto factories shut down and the unemployment rate approached 10 percent. Home prices slumped and the tax base dwindled. And Kalamazoo public schools were among the victims.

Then in 2005, out of nowhere, came a gesture of generosity that would change everything. A group of residents anonymously established and endowed "The Kalamazoo Promise," offering Kalamazoo public school graduates full tuition at any of Michigan's prestigious public universities or colleges. The goal was to revitalize the schools, but also the local economy and community.

Even in the program's infancy, the results have been dramatic, halting the community's hemorrhaging of jobs, population and money, according to a study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. In the Promise's first two years, real estate values rose by 8 to 10 percent (compared to an average statewide loss of 2 percent). Kalamazoo public school enrollment increased by more than 1,000 students. Instead of being shackled to a deteriorating local economy threatened by an exodus of young, well-educated workers, Kalamazoo is becoming a more attractive location for economic investment and innovation. After all, companies can, at no cost to their bottom lines, offer prospective hires a perk that few other towns can match.

As a Teach for America alumnus who's interested in education reform, I find the Kalamazoo Promise particularly interesting. In contrast to other private cash infusions into public education systems - Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's recent investment in Newark's schools comes to mind - the Promise is transforming primary and secondary schools indirectly. Instead of funding everything the public schools might ask for, the Promise fundamentally changes the district's guiding objective. Now that every student can afford college, preparing students for college has become the district's primary concern. Consider the ramifications this has for the development of teachers, course curricula, administrative priorities, parental and student expectations and even attendance and behavioral policies.

This is also a perfect way to cut across ideological lines in the education reform wars. Small-government advocates get a chance to prove - as they often claim - that private philanthropy can address social injustices more effectively than public initiatives can. After all, what better way to shrink the size of government by proving its programs unnecessary? Meanwhile, progressives can applaud the emphasis on equal opportunity and the constructive approach to improving student performance without demonizing teachers or administrators.

Can every town expect a generous anonymous gift to resuscitate its schools and local economy? No. But even while private donations are down across the country, a number of communities, including Detroit and Pittsburgh, are launching versions of a Promise program. The structure of these efforts varies: El Dorado Promise is funded by Murphy Oil, a local corporation, while College Bound Scholarship Program in Hammond, Ind., is supported by taxes on local gambling. Different communities may need different models, but there are ways to make it work.

This sort of local response to education and economic challenges is exactly what we need right now. It's no small part of the reason that Kalamazoo Central High School won the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge this year and was rewarded by having President Obama speak at graduation. In his address, the president said: "I'm here tonight because I think that America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo Central about what makes for a successful school in this new century." He couldn't be more right. If Americans want change, Kalamazoo is a great example.

Conor Williams is the winner of the America's Next Great Pundit Contest 2010 and for the next three months will be writing a weekly column and periodic blog posts for The Post. He can be reached at punditconor@gmail.com.

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