Congress Not Keeping its Promise

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions slashed funding for Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods Initiative from $210 million to a measly $60 million. What else costs the federal government a similar amount of money?

School buses in Coney Island. flickr user bk dauphin

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It was not long ago that the Obama administration launched their Promise Neighborhoods initiative, the competitive grant program to start education programs modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone. The HCZ, led by Geoffrey Canada, is an innovative program that offers support for children from “cradle to career”. It is not just an education program; it’s a holistic approach to combating poverty in one of America’s oldest ghettos.

Back in May, we reported that Obama had set aside $210 million in his FY2011 budget for this program. He had. The HCZ alone costs $46 million a year to operate (which the President pointed out is approximately the same cost of four hours of our war in Iraq). After the initial $10 million were awarded for 20 planning grants, the $210 million was to be used for implementation in 20 different cities across the nation.

Then, the budget made it to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions where, in a bit of closed-door hearing magic, $210 million became $60 million. As they most likely see it, the HELP committee cut more than two-thirds off of Obama’s signature anti-poverty program. But because the funds were to be distributed to 20 different schools, they have basically killed the program unless the funds are only awarded to the top six applicants. The whole point of the HCZ program was that it helps because it is so big, so pervasive, so all-encompassing. Any individual program with their budget slashed down to one-third its original size is not likely to produce results.

But according to a recent Brookings report, the HCZ itself doesn’t actually deliver such amazing results. In short, the researchers found that in math and language arts testing, HCZ Promise Academy students are outperformed by about 53% of other New York City public charter schools. Their math and English test scores, adjusted for certain disadvantages, clock in at the 55th and 39th percentiles, respectively. While students at the HCZ Promise Academy do better than students with the same background at NYC public schools, they are outperformed by most charter schools, including a few KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, which provide no neighborhood services. Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the author of the report, regretfully writes, “The inescapable conclusion is that the HCZ Promise Academy is a middling New York City charter school.”

What the Brookings report cannot calculate is whether, despite their admittedly low test scores, students at HCZ Promise Academy do better in life than those at public or other charter schools. That would require a much longer study, and a more complex system of metrics and methodologies to reach any reliable conclusion. For other facts and data that defend HCZ’s performance, have a look at the Promise Neighborhoods Institute website.

And, if we pretend that creating holistic education programs in rough neighborhoods is a useless endeavor, then it’s worth pointing out that the federal government is quite comfortable throwing billions of dollars at other beyond-Herculean feats. At the risk of trotting out some version of the bake-sales-for-bombers cliche, let’s consider one revelation from the massive Afghanistan war logs leaks: we have lost 38 remote controlled drones to crashes on combat missions and nine in training missions, totaling 47 aircraft lost to technical failure, not enemy fire. According to Der Spiegel, each one of these crashes costs the US government anywhere from $3.7 million to $5 million, which we can say averages out to about $4.3 million per crash. At that price tag, the US government has spent $202 million just on crashing faulty drones — which even the head of the Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force called “not ready for going into combat” — in the last few years, just shy of the cost of the Promise Neighborhoods initiative.

The saddest part of this is that the administration believes in HCZ’s promise — it’s Brookings that doesn’t — but can’t get Congress to fully fund it; Obama should have known that the drones don’t always work, yet he used them even more than his predecessor, and Congress wouldn’t dream of cutting military spending during two wars. Some cliches are persistent because they are so damning, and so true. If you feel strongly about it, visit PolicyLink’s Take Action page, and send a letter to the senators on the HELP committee.

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Tags: new york citywashington dcgovernance

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