Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

'Toledo Promise' a powerful economic development tool

"MORE powerful than a marching army," Victor Hugo observed, "is an idea whose time has come." In 2008 in Toledo, Ohio, the time has come for the idea of the Toledo Promise. The idea is as powerful as it is simple: every student who graduates from one of Toledo's public schools is promised a free college education.

Such a promise is neither false nor fancy. To the contrary, this promise is being fulfilled today in Kalamazoo, Mich., a Midwestern city much like Toledo, only 150 miles away. Launched in 2005 with a privately funded endowment estimated at $250 million, the Kalamazoo Promise has already had a dramatic impact on that community.

While urban centers across the nation struggle with declining school enrollment, stagnant or falling housing values, and faltering economic conditions, the Promise has allowed Kalamazoo to buck those trends. In Kalamazoo, school enrollment is up by over 10 percent, bringing an influx of millions of dollars in state funding. The school district has hired nearly 100 new teachers. Defying the current real estate bust, housing values in Kalamazoo are up by 7 percent. As one resident put it, "the Kalamazoo Promise is a powerful economic development tool masquerading as a scholarship program."

Hundreds of people have moved to the Kalamazoo area since the start of the Promise program, bringing with them a similar number of new small business ventures.

Here in Toledo, we desperately need a Promise program. According to Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit think tank, Ohio ranks 49th in the nation in the affordability of its state universities, with average annual tuition at a four-year public university expected to reach $9,900 by the year 2009. Is it any wonder then that Ohio also ranks near the bottom in the percentage of its residents (23 percent) with an undergraduate degree? In Toledo, that number is just 17 percent. By now, it should hardly need repeating that if we are to improve our economic well-being, we must attract and create knowledge-based jobs. And to do that, we need to retain and attract people with knowledge.

The Kalamazoo experience has prompted a number of cities and their philanthropic communities to race to replicate the Promise. Toledo must join that competition with the same dedication and commitment our people have exhibited when faced with other large-scale challenges. While securing funding on that magnitude may seem daunting, we should remember architect and 1893 World Fair director Daniel Burnham's advice to "make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."

To meet the considerable challenges of the 21st century, the people of Toledo need big plans that stir our blood. When we have such plans, we've shown we can rise to meet any challenge. As a community, we've funded big capital projects like the Toledo Museum of Art's $60 million campaign to create the resplendent Glass Pavilion and the stunning outdoor sculpture garden. ProMedica and Mercy Health Partners have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for their new facilities, lifting the surrounding neighborhoods in the process. On the public side, the $220 million Veterans' Glass City Skyway Bridge, the $85 million downtown arena, and the $600 million Toledo Public Schools building program are only the most recent examples of the community's capacity to fund important projects.

Finding the money is never easy, but our history proves that once we find the will, we always find the way. Now it is time for us to come together as a community and make what future generations may well regard as our most lasting and transformational capital investment: an investment in the educational future of our young people.

The good news is that the conversation about the Toledo Promise has begun. Leaders in our philanthropic community are now examining our potential as a Promise community. Private and public sector representatives will attend a conference in June in Kalamazoo to learn more about what works and what doesn't when designing a Promise program.

By itself, of course, the Toledo Promise will not solve all of the problems in Toledo's two public school districts (and Toledo's program must include both TPS and Washington Local). Nor will one program standing alone cure all of Toledo's ills. We learned long ago - or should have - that there are no panaceas for the complex problems facing American cities. But the potential for a universal promise of higher education for our young people to ignite a broad-based reinvestment in Toledo's neighborhoods and its economy is real.

The evidence from Kalamazoo is encouraging. In addition to the quantifiable increase in school enrollment and housing starts, Kalamazoo residents describe a new-found enthusiasm about their city and its prospects for the future. Economists tell us that confidence about the future is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. For parents, knowing that your child's future includes a college education is a strong incentive to keep your son or daughter focused on academics. And, just as in Kalamazoo, the Promise will stimulate interest in other educational reforms so that our students will be better prepared to meet the rigorous academic challenges awaiting them in college.

Making education the central theme of Toledo's 21st century identity will have profound implications. We are already experiencing tangible results from the merged University of Toledo/Medical University of Ohio and our more intense focus on scientific research. New alternative energy initiatives in the educational and commercial sectors are blossoming daily. The bold idea of a Toledo Promise holds the potential for similar transformative results by marking Toledo as one of our nation's leading knowledge-based communities.

It can happen here. Recalling Hugo's observation about the power of ideas, if we array the powerful idea of the Toledo Promise against the army of social forces at work against Midwestern cities like Toledo, we can win the battle for a better future. The time for the idea of the Toledo Promise has come.

Keith Wilkowski is a Toledo attorney who ran for mayor in 2005 and who has indicated he may run for the office again in 2009.

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