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December 11 2013

Cash for Kids: A Clunker?

Patrice J. Lee

A bill is sailing through Washington, D.C.’s City Council that would send the poorest kids to college with up $60,000 in their pockets. It’s an effort to address what some refer to as inequality in the District, where apparently one-third of adults are functionally illiterate while more than half hold a bachelor’s degree.

The new grants would be doled out based on a sliding scale with the majority of grants reserved for students from poor families. Both poor and middle class students would have access to new grants to go to college or technical school (provided they have exhausted all other grant assistance).

The Washington Post reports today:

A bill expected to clear its first hurdle Wednesday — and that a supermajority of council members have signed on to support — would provide a vast swath of the city’s poorest students with as much as $60,000 each to attend college.

In a city that spends more than $18,000 in tax dollars per student annually but only graduates six in 10 from high school on time, it’s the next big idea to fix the District’s broken education system, argues council member David A. Catania (I-At Large).

Under the latest version of the bill, which the education committee is scheduled to vote on Wednesday, the city’s public school students would benefit on a sliding scale from the new grants, which Catania has dubbed D.C. Promise.

Promise money would become available to students only after they exhaust all other possible grant assistance, including federal Pell grants and the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program.

More students would go to and finish college if they could envision paying for it without accumulating huge debt, Catania argues. Students who win the maximum Promise award could put a significant dent in the amount of loans they have to take out…"

And the price tag for taxpayers is nothing to sneeze at coming in at up at $50 million each year. That’s a pretty substantial investment. Good innovation requires capital, but that innovation needs to deliver results.

There are a few issues to consider though as this could become an example for other cities struggling with class issues tied to educational attainment.

First, is throwing money at kids the answer to getting more students in the District to college? I am no education expert, but the fact that D.C. spends more than $18,000 (Cato calculates $29,000) and only graduates 60 percent of students suggests that money alone is not enough. Grants do not address other underlying issues that affect whether a student graduates from high school including parental involvement, home stability, and a student’s attitude toward education.

Interestingly, a former D.C.  teacher, who now teaches in South Africa, makes a similar point in The Post:

…students must be convinced that education is the key to freedom, she said.

“It was simply unbelievable to many of my students in D.C. that I had come from a poor family and had used education to work my way into the middle class,” Waahida said…

In the world of those students, to be black was to be cut off from opportunity. And they had plenty of proof to support that view: in their broken homes and dysfunctional neighborhoods, in prisons and morgues. No way memorizing factoids for taking standardized tests would change their minds.

“Students from impoverished communities need to be taught in ways that empower them,” Waahida said. “They need an education that is relevant, that provides them with tools for critically thinking about ways to solve problems in their daily lives.”

Second, is too much emphasis placed on college attainment? Recently, we posited that the ever-kid-to-college philosophy does a disservice to students whose interests, passions and skills may be better directed toward trade and technical careers, for which one doesn’t need a baccalaureate.

If a third of District adults are functionally illiterate, we have to take a serious look at the education they received up to whatever point they left the educational system (whether that was sixth grade or as a high school senior). Students aren’t just failing, the education system is failing to prepare them.

In addition, the beneficiaries of these new grants are likely not the intended targets. A and B students, who are on track to finish high school, will do so without this new incentive. It certainly will help them but they don’t necessarily need it. It’s the C, D and failing students who straddle the drop-out line, who need to be incentivized to stay in school. However, returning to a previous point, cash incentives may not be what will motivate them most –especially a delayed cash incentive.

Good intentions don’t always produce good results. I’m not sure that throwing more cash at kids will lead to better educated -however that is defined- and productive adults in the District.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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