The Harlem Children's Zone operates two schools and several social service programs in a 97-block swath of central Harlem.

Photo by: Rebecca Davis

The Harlem Children’s Zone operates two schools and several social service programs in a 97-block swath of central Harlem.

President Obama has often highlighted the Harlem Children’s Zone as an exemplary anti-poverty strategy deserving of wide replication via the president’s nationwide Promise Neighborhoods initiative.

For 2011, the Obama administration budgeted $210 million to fund the actual programs, but negotiations in House and Senate subcommittees have trimmed that amount back by more than 90 percent to a proposed $20 million.

Funding for the program is to be discussed at a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting at the capitol on Thursday.

In late June, 339 non-profits and institutions of higher learning applied for $10 million in Promise Neighborhood planning grants—funds that are expected to be distributed to 20 or fewer groups, and that will support a year of intensive planning. At a later date, those plans would be used to compete for the larger pool of money that Obama is struggling to get Congress to approve.

The proposed funding cuts coincide with a critical report by Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan think tank the Brookings Institute, which was released last week, although House budget conversations predate the report.

In its March issue, City Limits raised questions about the impact of the Harlem Children’s Zone model on poverty in its 97-block catchment zone, and on the ability of the federal program to copy the model and apply it to other cities.

Whitehurst, who previously served as the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Science, and his colleague Michelle Croft sought to evaluate how educational outcomes were affected by the comprehensive social-services and other supports, including tax-consulting workshops and medical and dental screenings, that characterize the ‘wraparound’ HCZ approach.

To evaluate whether HCZ works as an education reform model, the authors analyzed publicly available data on school performance.

They determined that the HCZ flagship charter school, Promise Academy I, was “a middling charter school,” compared with other Manhattan and Bronx charters. They also stated: “There is no compelling evidence that investments in parenting classes, health services, nutritional programs and community improvement have appreciable effects on student achievement.”

HCZ CEO Geoffrey Canada swiftly circulated a point-by-point response to Brookings and various mainstream and new media outlets, critiquing Whitehurst’s analysis, which excluded one of the HCZ schools and used flawed poverty data that Canada ascribes to “our own reporting errors.”

Canada said that the Brookings reports was “a wrong-headed critique” that was “inaccurate and misleading” and “compromised by several statistical misrepresentations.” In addition, he said, Whitehurst and Croft don’t understand his agency’s core mission. Yet he did not provide direct evidence of the effects of HCZ’s social programs.

“In 2004, the Harlem Children’s Zone opened the Promise Academy charter school with the intention of closing the black-white achievement gap,” Canada wrote. “In just a few short years we have accomplished that. With the American education landscape littered with schools in poor communities that have failed to accomplish this important task for decades, we feel that the Whitehurst and Croft report trivializes what we have done in a relatively short time. This is certainly not a trivial issue to poor children, and
particularly to poor children of color, because getting a good education is their only reliable way out of poverty.”

On Wednesday, Whitehurst published a response to Canada’s complaint, describing a second statistical analysis undertaken in accord with Canada’s wishes. The outcome, Whitehurst said in an interview with City Limits, was wholly comparable. “Very little changes,” he said. “You still end up with the conclusion that the HCZ charter schools are about average among the Manhattan and Bronx charter schools.”

“Our issue is not with the HCZ as a philanthropically supported endeavor to improve the lives of children in Harlem,” Whitehurst wrote, “but with the use of the HCZ as evidence that investments in wraparound support services and neighborhood improvements are a cost-effective approach to increasing academic achievement.”

He added: “We don’t have any evidence. We don’t know whether counseling works, whether obesity-reduction works. We don’t know for sure whether Baby College works. It’s not that we know they don’t work. It’s that we don’t know they work.”

Representatives of the Harlem Children’s Zone declined to comment on the Whitehurst study and the potential losses to funding, which the agency, along with PolicyLink, has launched a campaign to restore.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen New York City agencies and non-profits were among those that applied for the Promise Neighborhood 2010 grants. One, the Children’s Aid Society, looks to build on its established programs in public schools, as well as expand early-childhood education, prenatal care, service learning and a wide range of social and community supports for 4,500 families in a 50-block corridor in the South Bronx.
Children’s Aid President and CEO Richard R. Buery, Jr., told City Limits that a potential funding cut is “extremely disappointing,” especially when the Promise Neighborhoods pricetag is compared with other federal spending priorities.
“We believe that strong social services can create an environment where all children can learn,” Buery said. “When you look at the federal education budget, we’re talking about investing $210 million in a promising practice. Given the amount this country spends on incarceration, and on education in general, it’s an embarrassment that we can’t find $210 million to test this promising theory.”

But HCZ skeptics think it’s wise for Congress to hold off putting all its anti-poverty eggs in the Promise Neighborhoods basket.

“Resources are scarce,” says Brookings scholar Whitehurst. “We need, as we have choices, to invest in things that have a pretty good evidence base of working.”

He pointed out that government funding comes with different criteria than those used by the private funders—including several financial titans—who have backed HCZ to date.

“There’s a fundamental difference between hedge-fund billionaires giving money to the HCZ, out of all the things they spend their money on, versus the federal government using taxpayers’ money,” he said. “They are fundamentally different issues.”