The $10 Million Challenge 

Let’s stop wasting $10 million on political patronage and invest it instead in the top kids and families across the city.

click to enlarge back19_college_scholoarships.jpg

Richmond's parents and grandparents know the truth. Politicians are financially shortchanging the city's most talented high school seniors along with their families. In my view, this applies to both public and private school students. Retiring 1st District School Board member Kim Bridges has made this general point as well as 3rd District Councilman Chris Hilbert, head of City Council's education committee.

They're searching for a continuous, predictable source of funds for a citywide scholarship program. The leading model is Kalamazoo, Mich. That city's Promise initiative pays as much as 100 percent of tuition and fees for any graduating public school senior admitted to a participating state college.

So their commendable joint effort got me thinking: Why can't Richmond offer something similar to its schoolchildren? Would including talented seniors at private schools help build support to overcome the usual Richmond resistance to change? After some noodling over the city's financial, political and social forces, this doable plan emerged: Richmond's $10 Million Merit Scholarship Challenge.

The state's auditor of public accounts recently exposed a massively expensive Richmond government. Looking at comparable cities, Richmond wastes north of $10 million a year on a dysfunctional bureaucracy because of crony contracts, political patronage and incompetence. This conservative number is derived from a comparison that City Hall used to criticize school system waste.

Last year I helped bring together Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb and Congressman Eric Cantor, along with U.S. Senate campaign rivals George Allen and Tim Kaine, on a bipartisan plan they all agreed would be great for Richmond schools and the regional economy. The plan was based on two ideas, one championed by Democratic President John F. Kennedy, the other by Republican President Ronald Reagan.

The Richmond Merit Scholarship Challenge meets the criteria.

First, Kalamazoo's program got started with several large, anonymous donations. While I'm confident private funding will materialize here, Councilman Hilbert and the School Board's Bridges are right in believing that city funds should be provided as immediate seed money. This is a type of reform long championed by Democrats.

Second, the finding of $10 million in wasteful, bloated spending at City Hall proves a long-standing Republican, fiscally conservative point. The savings would be put in a special Richmond Merit Scholarship Trust Fund administered by experts, not politicians. About $5 million should be held in reserve in case the private funding doesn't materialize as fast as it has in the other cities. The remaining $5 million will be allocated as follows: $4 million for merit-based college scholarships to all graduating seniors living in Richmond going to four- or two-year Virginia colleges, and $1 million for merit-based scholarships to those graduating seniors entering a trade or other noncollege program.

Third, Kalamazoo is a town one-third the size of Richmond with different demographics. Studies suggest automatic college-only scholarships to any graduate might not work in Richmond. We need instead to target the top high-school graduates who meet a competitive requirement developed to reward excellence across the city the way the top colleges make sure they get scholars from across the country.

Just as important, Richmond needs to avoid turning the scholarship program into a debate about race. Knowing Richmond, the most controversial part of this proposal is going to be making the merit scholarships available to families that send their children to private schools. We all know the subtext to such criticisms. It is wrongheaded.

We need a stronger, united community commitment to fix public education in Richmond. Let's face reality: Those who have pitted the public schools against the private schools have succeeded only in getting elected, not getting the results promised. It's time for people to stop buying wolf tickets, as the saying goes.

I know my politics: By making this scholarship program available to all resident families on a competitive basis, we can bring together often opposing forces in a cooperative effort that is great for Richmond public education long term.

Making the competitive scholarship process work fairly for all will take some skill. But I recall those who said I couldn't change craft a city charter change to an elected-mayor form of government that would satisfy local Democratic voters, a Republican General Assembly and the U.S. Department of Justice under then President George W. Bush.

Success is easy once people stop inhaling the chloroform of conformity. Let's stop wasting $10 million on the most expensive government in Virginia and invest it instead in the top high school seniors and families across the city.

As private funding emerges, we can decide to cut back on the public money, which can be used for other purposes. But the future is now for this community and her most talented youngsters. S

Paul Goldman is a longtime Democratic strategist and was senior policy adviser for former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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