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Broken Promise: The Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program is a failure

| Saturday, July 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Begun six years ago with great fanfare and ambitious goals, the Pittsburgh Promise is falling well short of its primary objectives to improve the quality of education and raise enrollment in Pittsburgh's public schools.

No doubt some of the students receiving the program's scholarship money have benefited. But if the program was ever going to be successful in its stated purpose, there should be convincing evidence by now.

The Promise provides scholarships to students who have been in city schools for at least the four years of senior high, i.e., grades nine through 12. Students who attend only senior high will receive $7,500 for four years. Students attending kindergarten through 12th grade will be eligible for $40,000 over four years. To complete the eligibility requirements, graduating seniors must have maintained a 2.5 grade-point average and had 90 percent attendance.

First, how is the goal of boosting enrollment progressing? In short, not very well.

Overall enrollment fell from 28,265 in school year 2006-07 to 24,849 in 2011-12 and fell again in 2012-13 — a decline of more than 12 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of 12th-graders decreased from 1,965 in school year 2006-07 to 1,635 in 2012-13, a 17 percent slide.

Obviously, the Promise goal of boosting enrollment has not been met.

What's worse, in the schools with sixth through 12th grades, only 34 percent of the graduating class qualified for the Promise scholarships in 2012. At Westinghouse only 17 percent qualified. In the schools that have ninth through 12th grades, 52 percent of seniors qualified for Promise scholarships. A serious problem standing in the way of meeting qualifications is the stunning 47 percent of senior high students who are chronically absent — more than 10 percent of the days in a given school year.

Then there is the academic improvement goal. Here's the story in a nutshell:

Between 2007 — the year before the first scholarships were awarded — and 2012, the latest results available, SAT scores fell at most of Pittsburgh's public high schools. Of the nine schools in existence in 2007 and 2012, CAPA and Allderdice posted marginal improvements; Langley results held fairly close to 2007 numbers while all others recorded declines, some dramatic.

Especially noteworthy — the 50-point dip in the verbal test results and the 44-point drop in math scores at Brashear.

Only students at Allderdice and CAPA had combined reading and math SAT scores above the state average of 990.

Most city schools' combined SAT scores were well under 900. Five were at 820 or below. Moreover, the 2012 PSSA math scores in the high schools also dropped from 2011 levels.

The number of Westinghouse 11th-graders scoring at proficient or better levels in math remained abysmally low at 7.5 percent.

In short, it is hard to see how the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program has led to improved academic performance. In fact, if anything, the results for students nearing graduation are worse than they were at the Promise program's inception.

Pittsburgh Public Schools spends $21,000 per pupil per year, one of the highest in the state and thousands more than the state average. In light of the lamentable and worsening academic performance of a large percentage of Pittsburgh's high school students despite the promise of tens of thousands of dollars for post-secondary education, this question must be asked:

Would it not be better to redirect some of the vast sums of taxpayer dollars and Promise money to real education reform?

As we have noted before, a more powerful and effective education-enhancing use of the scholarship dollars would be to create scholarships for elementary and secondary students to allow them to opt out of Pittsburgh schools and enroll in private or parochial schools.

That might actually induce people and students to move into Pittsburgh and produce real academic improvement. What are they waiting for?

Jake Haulk is president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy.

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