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Obama Moves Ahead on 'Promise Neighborhoods'
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On top of $115 billion for education allotted in the $787 billion stimulus, Pres. Obama requested $46.7 billion in discretionary funding for the federal Department of Education for fiscal year 2010. But how exactly will the department spend this money? For one thing, it plans to carry out Obama's vision for combining education with other social services through the creation of 20 "Promise Neighborhoods." The president directed the department to work with the White House's Domestic Policy Council and other agencies to draft plans to carry out this signature initiative.

So far, no one knows exactly how much the initiative will cost, but on the campaign trail Obama mentioned he expected to spend "a few billion dollars a year" on it, and to receive about an equivalent amount for the project from private businesses and philanthropies.

The "Promise Neighborhood" idea is based on Harlem's "Children's Zone," a project headed by urban planner Geoffrey Canada. The Harlem Children's Zone combines two public charter schools with social services and after-school programs. It serves 8,000 children and their families in a 97-block area of New York. "The philosophy behind the project is simple," said Obama in July of 2007. "If poverty is a disease that affects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can't just treat those symptoms in isolation. We need to heal that entire community."

One of the Harlem Children's Zone's core programs is a parenting class for new moms, nicknamed "Baby College." In an interview with ABC News (4-25-09), mastermind Geoffrey Canada said the Children's Zone attracts parents to "Baby College" through "aggressive outreach to the entire community. We don't just limit it to poor families, although 85% of families who come are poor. We try and get everyone in the neighborhood." According to ABC News, Children's Zone programming also offers preschool, provides free tax assistance, and "teaches community organizing techniques."

In the recent ABC News interview, Canada warned that some of the proposed Promise Neighborhoods might fail, but said that Americans should not take that as a sign to stop creating more Promise Neighborhoods. "What I have argued is that all of these may not work," he said. "So within the 20 there may be some that don't work but it won't mean they don't work because the concept is not good. In some places, it will take hold. In other places, they may struggle." Similar rhetoric in the U.K.

In the United Kingdom, steps combining education and social services are still controversial, though the U.K. is much farther along this road than the U.S. In 2007, the U.K. created the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) to replace the Department for Education and Skills. DCSF officials use exactly the same rhetoric as American proponents of Promise Neighborhoods and similar ideas. "We make no apologies for the fact that the DCSF has broadened Government's focus beyond the school gates," said a department official recently, continuing:

Common sense and every teacher in every classroom tell us what happens outside school hours and parents' involvement in children's education are both vital to their progress. By strengthening family support during children's formative early years, getting parents more involved in their child's learning and making sure young people have more exciting things to do outside school, we hope to make this country the best place in the world to grow up.

Not everyone agrees with how the British government is going about this. Steve Patriarca, a former school head who worked closely with Government to convert a high-profile private school to a state-funded school under the new department, recently declared that "the Department for Children, Schools and Families lives up to its Orwellian title." According to Patriarca, the DCSF's various responsibilities are in conflict with each other, and the new department is a cumbersome hybrid which fulfills none of its roles very well.

It is politicized in a way which seems to find achievement embarrassing. It is preoccupied with the less able and the social misfit — which would be fine if it actually achieved anything in dealing with such children. It doesn't because it panders to them — it prioritizes their needs over the needs of the vast majority.

According to Patriarca, the school system under the new department has treated disruptive and low-achieving students to generous helpings of "indulgence and sentimentality," instead of firm discipline, which Patriarca believes would encourage excellence. "The more disruptive the child is, the more attention it receives and the more benefits," he charged. Schools such as the one Patriarca headed until last year, that have gone from private to state-run, have lost all independence and are now controlled by ill-informed bureaucrats. The Telegraph said that Patriarca's comments would "come as a huge embarrassment to Government." (London Telegraph, 3-12-09)

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