State representatives may vote on promise zone bills

Thursday, December 3, 2015 - 6:44pm

The Michigan House Workforce and Talent Development Committee heard testimony Thursday on legislation related to the state’s promise zones as they prepare to formulate a recommendation for the full House, where representatives could vote on two bills in the near future.

The testimony concerned Senate Bill 0539 and Senate Bill 0540, which seek to expand a statewide program launched in 2008. That program aims to cover some or all of the costs of in-state tuition at public schools after financial aid awards with a combination of state and private funds. The bills propose five additional school districts be labeled as promise zones, making a total of 15.

Anna Mooney, deputy chief of staff for Sen. Goeff Hansen (R–Hart), and Brianna McGarry, a legislative assistant for Sen. Jim Ananich (D–Flint), delivered the testimony Thursday on behalf of the two senators, who each sponsored one of the bills.

The Michigan State Treasury supervises the establishment of the promise zones, which currently serve students in 10 high-poverty school districts. Students’ eligibility for these scholarships, as well as the amount they are each eligible to receive, often depend on how long they have attended school in the district, and could also be contingent on factors such as college GPA.

In an e-mail interview, Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president for government affairs, noted the growing interest of school districts across Michigan in establishing promise zones.

“The expansion of the promise zones has been stimulated by the interest of several more communities in the state that want to support the post-secondary education aspirations among their residents,” she said.

During her testimony, McGarry said the creation of more promise zones is important to increasing access to higher education in Michigan. She noted that there have been districts, such as Flint, that want to establish promise zones to benefit their students, but have been unable to because state law limits the zones to 10 districts.

“We know that education is a driver of our economy, and we know that in certain areas, it’s a little bit more difficult to attain high education,” McGarry said. “I really think this benefits the state as a whole: Not only are we offering a higher education, but if people know that they have the promise option for their children, I think, long term, we would see more people coming into communities — potentially housing values could increase — because people want to send their kids to a district where they know that they’re going to have college afterwards.”

McGarry also noted that some promise zones, especially Baldwin Community Schools, have already been successful at increasing college or technical school enrollment.

“Starting with the first promise zone in Kalamazoo, communities have witnessed a positive impact in providing tuition support for students,” she said. “Not every zone works in exactly the same way and the funding for the zones can vary. The expansion of promise zones appears to further enhance the ability of students and families to consider higher education or other post-secondary options. That’s certainly an effort we support.”

McGarry said this flexibility is a positive, because it allows locals to decide what is best for their communities.

“This program doesn’t work in every community, but for locals that want to garner the private investment to get this off the ground, this gives them the ability to do that,” she said. “Let’s give more communities the ability to take advantage of it.”

Both Mooney and McGarry noted that 0539 and 0540’s more technical changes to previous legislation would increase the accountability of the program. Districts would have several years to receive treasury approval and begin granting scholarships before their charters would be revoked for lack of success. The treasury would then give the next district on a waiting list the mandate to begin its own program, and all zones would be required to include mechanisms for tracking degree completion in their program design.

Mooney cited the decision of Jackson Public Schools, one of the 10 original promise zone districts, to terminate its program last year due to fundraising constraints as the catalyst for Bill 0539. She said there lacked a system in the original promise zones legislation that specified how the state could replace that school district with another.

“Treasury didn’t believe that it specified in (previous legislation) how to dissolve a zone if (Jackson) chose to and what happens to the dollars that they’ve raised — so that’s what we are trying to codify and clarify in Senate Bill 0539,” she said. “And when Jackson chose to dissolve, there are others on this waiting list that applied back in 2009, and Treasury believed there needed to be clarification in statute in order for them to certify or designate another eligible entity to be a zone.”

Bill 0540 is a technical bill that allows state-raised funds to be funneled directly to the promise zone programs, as opposed to through an intermediary such as the school district.

After the testimonies, the committee engaged with Mooney and McGarry for clarification on specific parts of the two bills and some representatives raised concerns about how state and district-level funds are appropriated for these programs.

Specifically, Rep. Jeff Farrington (R–Utica) asked Mooney and McGarry why the number of promise zones in the state should be limited at all.

“Why are we moving from 10 to 15 instead of unlimiting it?” Farrington said. “If it’s good for Baldwin, Flint, Battle Creek, whomever else, why not for the whole state?”

Mooney said it is prudent for the state to increase the number of permissible zones slowly, because these programs do use state funds to provide scholarships.

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