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Colin McNickle: Pittsburgh Promise's broken promises

| Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
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Pittsburgh's public school district has broken major financial and academic promises to parents and students, says the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy's president.

The first breach involves the much-ballyhooed Pittsburgh Promise college scholarships. The total per-student award has been halved since the program's inception about a decade ago.

The second breach of faith, if not an outright perfidy, involves Pittsburgh Public Schools' continuing promise of an “excellent education” when that, as the record shows, is far from the reality.

The program initially pledged $40,000 scholarships to those who attend the district from kindergarten through 12th-grade graduation, maintaining at least a 2.5 grade-point average and 90-percent attendance. But in 2015, the maximum amount was cut to $7,500 yearly/$30,000 total. And this January, the maximum again was reduced, to $5,000/$20,000, effective with this year's graduates. Only months away from receiving diplomas, those students (and, of course, their parents) have been left in a financial lurch.

“To rub salt in that wound for those who have stayed since kindergarten, the new plan will extend the maximum stipend to students who only attended ninth through 12th grades,” reminds Jake Haulk, president of the Pittsburgh think tank.

Pittsburgh Promise officials say trimming the financial awards will allow the program to continue through 2028, but that suggests lagging corporate and foundation support. The program remains $50 million short of its original goal — even with $100 million from UPMC. Further diminishing The Pittsburgh Promise's stature is inflation in college costs.

“Over the last 10 years the cost of tuition and room and board at public colleges on average has gone up 30 percent. Thus, the promised $10,000 per year 10 years ago would have been worth only $7,600 today in 2008 dollars,” Haulk says. The new, lower $5,000 annual maximum would be $3,800 in 2008 dollars.“One can only conjecture how many parents who were staying ... to get a $40,000 payoff and who now are looking at a real payoff of only $14,000 or so would have made the same decision. And given the wretched academic performance at the non-magnet schools, parents who care about education will be even more inclined to leave.”

Pittsburgh high schools overall have nowhere near the academic performance (based on SAT scores) of several in Allegheny County — think Upper St. Clair, North Allegheny, South Fayette, Pine-Richland or Mt. Lebanon — which all have significantly lower per-pupil expenditures than city schools.

“Then, too, the achievement level of far too many Pittsburgh 11th-graders bodes poorly for getting a Promise scholarship — if they graduate,” Haulk says. “And even if they were to somehow manage to qualify for one, they simply are not academically ready to get into college or succeed if they were to be admitted.”

There is no “happy face” to put on Pittsburgh Public Schools' abysmal academic record, he concludes: “Broken promises indeed.”

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

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