This is a really interesting study of the community of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where a group of anonymous donors back in 2005 announced that they would pay full college tuition for every Kalamazoo public school student who graduated from the district’s high schools, at any of the state’s public colleges and universities. “The Promise,” as it called locally, has had a range of effects on the local community.
From the very beginning…[Superintendent Janice Brown], the only person in town who communicates directly with the Promise donors, has suggested that the program is supposed to do more than just pay college bills. It’s primarily meant to boost Kalamazoo’s economy. The few restrictions — among them, children must reside in the Kalamazoo public-school district and graduate from one of its high schools — seem designed to encourage families to stay and work in the region for a long time. The program tests how place-based development might work when education is the first investment.
“Other communities invest in things like arenas or offer tax incentives for businesses or revitalize their waterfronts,” says Michelle Miller-Adams, a political scientist at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, which is located in the city. “The Kalamazoo Promise tries to develop the local economy with a long-term investment in human capital that is intended to change the town from the bottom up.” In this regard, the Promise can be seen as an exorbitant ante, staked by private funds, that calls to Kalamazoo’s better angels. It stokes hometown pride, prods citizens to engage and pulls businesses and their leaders into the public sphere. To date, Miller-Adams says, Kalamazoo’s Promise has inspired donors in 25 other cities and towns around the United States — including Pittsburgh, New Haven and El Dorado, Ark. — to start, or consider starting, similar programs.
….In the 1970s, Kalamazoo, under legal pressure, tried to desegregate its schools through a combination of busing and school choice. But affluent white families fled the district, large numbers of them to suburban Portage. Brown says that in Kalamazoo, white flight was not sudden but a steady trickle. The school system was losing around 1 percent of its more affluent families, whites and others, every year for more than three decades. “That’s not a mass exodus,” she says, “but you can see how that can add up over time.”
The suburban flight stopped after the Promise was made. The city’s population has held steady, and the demographic mix in the school system has stabilized.
In the first year after the Promise, 1,000 additional students enrolled in the Kalamazoo schools. Altogether, the student population has increased by 2,450 students, or 24 percent. With every added student, the school district gets another $7,250 from the state. A new teacher can be hired for every additional 25 students; 92 have been hired so far. The district has been able to upgrade facilities and, for the first time since the 1970s, passed bond issues to build new schools.