- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2006

Talk about a future.

Public schools in the western Michigan town of Kalamazoo are starting to bulge after a nameless local benefactor promised to fund the college education of any student who graduates from one of Kalamazoo’s three public high schools.

Beginning with the class of 2006, students who attend the city’s public schools from kindergarten through grade 12 get a full ride, with a sliding scale down to 65 percent funding for those who complete four years of high school in the district. They must attend a university or college in Michigan.

The cash outlay is expected to reach $10 million to $15 million a year.

From the time the Kalamazoo Promise was announced in November to Jan. 3, the 10,400-student school district reported an increase of 51 students, compared with a decrease of 104 in the same period the previous year.

“But a major part of our growth that we see coming is when we look at the high school and see that we are having fewer dropouts,” says Gary Start, assistant superintendent for Kalamazoo Public Schools. “When they find they have all of these years of vested college credit, it’s a real incentive to stay.”

The district has recorded a 20 percent decline in enrollment during the past dozen years, the administration said.

School officials are considering a bond proposal to accommodate the new students, and no budget cuts are forecast.

“I’ve been here for 22 years, and most of my career has been cutting budgets,” Mr. Start said, “so this is a very different and much more enjoyable part of my career.”

Wayne State University in Detroit, eager to attract Kalamazoo students, will cut dorm fees by half for Promise students. Western Michigan University, based in Kalamazoo, is offering free accommodations for students taking advantage of the program.

Other programs have funded college educations for targeted students.

In 1981, businessman Gene Lang promised to pay the college bill of a group of sixth-graders in a New York public school. The program was transformed into the I Have a Dream Foundation, which serves 13,500 children in 27 states and 64 cities, but has become more dependent on taxpayers. Tax records show that 76 percent of 2004 national office revenue came from government grants.

In 1987, Philadelphia philanthropist George Weiss staked 47 inner-city elementary school students to a college education. Now called Say Yes to Education, the program has expanded.

These programs have revealed how education is linked to financial resources.

The Kalamazoo Promise has the potential to reconfigure an entire town that has been crippled by white-collar job losses.

“Kalamazoo has had some really difficult times,” said Randy Eberts, executive director of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Kalamazoo was once home to Upjohn, which underwent ownership changes until it emerged as part of Pfizer Inc. About 1,500 top-dollar research jobs and 1,000 executive positions were lost, replaced by lower-paying lab work.

“It is not the same mix, and not the same income level,” Mr. Eberts said.

Since the Promise was announced, developers have expressed interest in acquiring land in anticipation of a surge of buyers.

“I’ve had people from out of state calling me about land and homes,” said Matthew Maire, executive vice president of the Greater Kalamazoo Area Association of realtors. “The developers are looking for large sections of land they can develop in the Kalamazoo school district. We know what to expect. And it’s good.”

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