Throwing out the Baby College with the bathwater?

It hasn’t been a good month for the Obama administration’s education agenda. First, the House of Representatives introduced a bill that would bite off some $8 billion from the president’s favorite reforms — the Race to the Top competition, the Teacher Incentive Fund, and the expansion of charter schools. Now, Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, which would seek to replicate Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) in poor urban areas across the country, might be cut by more than 70 percent.

Geoffrey Canada (courtesy of Tulane Public Relations)

The House has proposed cutting the appropriation for the initiative from $210 million to $60 million. Yesterday, the Promise Neighborhoods Institute, a nonprofit that offers support to aspiring projects, sent out an urgent email asking supporters to lobby Congress to save the funding, arguing that the appropriation is “not nearly enough to help communities implement this proven, pragmatic solution to child poverty.”

But the cuts also come at a difficult moment for the Harlem Children’s Zone and, by extension, the Promise Neighborhood idea: a study this week by the Brookings Institution critiqued the effectiveness of the charter schools run by HCZ, noting that although they perform better than regular public schools nearby, they are sub-par compared to some charters operating in Harlem.

The Brookings study has stirred up a heated debate among its defenders and critics about whether the study was too harsh, or whether it raises legitimate concerns in the nick of time, right before we start spending lots of money on duplicating the HCZ concept. The study was publicly released after the budget cut was proposed last week, so it doesn’t seem like there’s a connection. But the study could make it harder for supporters to convince Congress to restore the Promise Neighborhood funding.

So what will be lost if the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative doesn’t receive the full $210 million? For one thing, the Obama administration will lose points with the early childhood community, who were already angry after the Early Learning Challenge Fund was scuttled last fall, but who were holding out hope that Promise Neighborhoods could expand on some of the work they most care about: “wraparound” services for poor families and high-quality care and education for children from birth to age 5.

More substantially, it seems likely that the number of Promise Neighborhood grant winners – more than 330 have applied – will be reduced. But some of these applicants are already doing work that is similar to what HCZ does; the Center for Strategic Urban Community Leadership in Camden, N.J. is one example.  And the $500,000 in start-up money that winners would receive in the first round isn’t all that much in the grand scheme of ending child poverty in the country’s most destitute places. It’s also unclear how reasonable it is to believe that new projects can match what Geoffrey Canada has done in Harlem; HCZ is fueled largely by private grant money, which the government will probably never be willing or able to supply itself.

A paper by the Center for the Study of Social Policy points out that exact replication of HCZ isn’t really the point. “The key, as Obama explains it, is to stop treating unemployment, violence, failing schools, and broken homes in isolation, but to put together what works ‘to heal that entire community.’” Putting it this way, the Promise Neighborhood Initiative is more about creating momentum for a sea change in how we think about poverty, so perhaps the right question is whether that will be lost if the money is cut.

Sarah Garland