Millions of families nationwide struggle with finances every year. Some of them must decide how they're going to send their high school senior to the next level at a time when college costs are rising much faster than Iowa incomes.
One Iowa community is trying to make that hard decision easier by offering to pay the tuition of its residents. It’s called the Davenport Promise. A concept that's seen some success elsewhere, Davenport hopes it's the solution to problems confronting all rust-belt cities.
Twenty-five thousand kids live in Davenport, Iowa, the state's third largest city: 16,000 of them are in the Davenport school system; 54 percent of the Davenport students receive free or reduced lunch. But city leaders, like Davenport School Superintendent Julio Almanza, believe investing in these students could be the key to Davenport's economic future.
Almanza: There is no prosperous city without a prosperous school district. This is one of the economic development focuses that has benefits for a lot of folks if it’s pulled off right.
Yeager: The Davenport Promise would present graduates a ticket to college, community college, tech school, or a homestead credit for military-bound graduates. Students in the promise must maintain a certain grade point average in college and do community service.
The Promise offers the students a chance to break the cycle of poverty. It also offers the city a tool to reverse the out-migration of young families to the suburbs. Longer term it could provide Davenport with a better educated workforce.
While the education community has been quick to rally to the "Promise," as witnessed in this informational pep rally, some of the biggest boosters in Davenport's Promise are civic leaders like Davenport City Administrator Craig Malin.
Malin: At the earliest ages, children come to understand whether or not they have a legit shot at life. This is not so much focused on kids who are seniors or juniors, but really how do we alter fundamentally the culture of the community, to be a community that's really successful about the future and is focused on that as a community goal.
Yeager: The City of Davenport is now in the middle of forming a task force to study how to make the Promise more fiscally viable. Lead by a new mayor, the city council is considering shifting $13 million out of capital improvements and property tax reduction.
The idea would re-direct the 1 percent of the Local Option Sales Tax, collected in mostly retail areas, to finance the pledged post-high school education. The City Council can't act alone. It must put the issue to the Davenport residents for a vote to approve re-allocation of the retail tax revenue.
The idea is generating much debate in the community, and a number of community groups are pushing it, although the proposition is still in development. Civic tweaking will likely alter what is ultimately promised.
Barney: Davenport Promise is really a community development initiative that helps make the city of Davenport a more likely choice for those families that are moving back here.
Yeager: Tara Barney is the Executive Director of Davenport One, the chamber and economic development office. She says her phone has rang nonstop with people wanting to talk about the Davenport Promise.
Barney: There's costs of providing a great business environment. That’s our jobs is to do everything we can to give our business a great place to do business and a place to grow. There are costs to looking into a program like this. There are costs to not looking at it. To the extent that we don't find a way to make our older cities more vital, there are costs to maintaining what we've got, so you've got to weigh both. Either way, you know, taxes hardly ever go down.
Yeager: Leaders in Davenport hope the Promise replicates the success enjoyed by Kalamazoo. The similar-sized Michigan City has seen the influx of nearly 1,000 new students to their district since its promise was implemented. In Iowa, each student in a public-school district brings in $5,300 in Department of Education state aid. A thousand new students would generate more than $5 million.
The math is not lost on city leaders. Craig Malin estimates with just a conservative 25 percent success rate, the combined city and school property tax rate could be reduced as early as 2014. And the city's economy could be more prosperous as the promise produces a more skilled workforce ready for advanced manufacturing jobs of the 21st century.
Malin: Workforce is so important for a city’s economy and region's economy, but there isn’t one single entity that’s responsible. So only through combined action of the city, the school, the local business, nonprofit community neighborhood groups can an idea that is this transformative and this important happen.
Barney: Finding ways to do that locally is very, very important, because we are not likely to easily recruit thousands of people to come to our market. We need to make sure that we’re growing a great workforce and encouraging it to be vital and active for decades to come.
Yeager: Now, if the city proceeds with the plan, capital improvement projects would likely need a new funding source. Davenport's Malin argues expected population increases would also increase city sales and property tax revenues. We'll provide updates on the community's debate of the proposition.