District lawmakers want to create a new publicly-funded college scholarship program for low-income high school graduates. But many fear a proposed “D.C. Promise” program — which was tentatively approved by the D.C. Council on Tuesday — could ultimately undermine existing federal scholarship programs for D.C. teens. We explore the future of college support programs in the District.


  • Emma Brown D.C. Education Reporter, Washington Post


  • 12:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, as questions swirl about the rocky launch of healthcare.gov, we explore the future of government efficiency and effectiveness, but, first, the District's evolving debate about college affordability. D.C. lawmakers on Monday tentatively approved a new local program to provide scholarship money to the city's low-income high school graduates.

  • 12:07:17

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe author of the proposal is a potential mayoral candidate who says more needs to be done to make college accessible to D.C. students and provide incentives to keep young people from dropping out of high school. But the idea is triggering concerns about whether a new local scholarship would threaten a popular program administered by Congress. Joining us to discuss this is Emma Brown. She is a reporter at The Washington Post. She joins us from studios at The Post. Emma, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:07:45

    MS. EMMA BROWNThank you for having me.

  • 12:07:46

    NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Are you a student in the District or a parent of a D.C. student trying to figure out a way to pay for college? Where does the so-called DC TAG program, which we'll also discuss, fit into how you plan to make it work? 800-433-8850. Emma, the council on Tuesday tentatively approved the so-called D.C. Promise program. What would this program do? And why does its author, at-large Councilmember David Catania, say it's necessary?

  • 12:08:17

    BROWNSo the D.C. Promise bill or initiative would provide students with up to $7,500 for college. And they could really use that at any college. And it would be sort of a sliding scale program, so students whose families earn up to about $86,000 would get the full amount. And then the students who earn -- whose families earn more, up to $215,000, would get less. And then over $215,000, they'd get nothing.

  • 12:08:50

    BROWNCatania says that this bill is necessary because the costs of college have simply outstripped the ability of students and families to pay, and particularly the District's poorest students, many of whom feel as if they -- there's just no way for them to get a post-secondary education. So he said that, you know, that it's time for the District to invest and to make that a possibility for students, and also has pitched it as a way to keep kids in high school and do a little bit to improve the District's graduation rate which has long been among the lowest in the country.

  • 12:09:29

    NNAMDITalk of D.C. Promise immediately triggered concerns -- oh, by the way, where would this money come from?

  • 12:09:35

    BROWNThis would come from D.C. taxpayers, so this would be D.C. taxpayer money helping kids go to college.

  • 12:09:42

    NNAMDITalk of D.C. Promise immediately triggered concerns about whether this would threaten a separate federal program known as DC TAG. What exactly does DC TAG do, and how does it operate?

  • 12:09:54

    BROWNYeah, DC TAG is a unique program to the District. And so it started in 2000 as a way to sort of recognize that kids in the District don't have access to a fully-fledged public university system. You know, if you live across the Potomac River in Arlington or Fairfax, you can go to the University of Virginia and get in-state tuition. But if you live in the District, you don't get that, so you end up paying a lot more.

  • 12:10:21

    BROWNSo DC TAG provides up to $10,000 per year for students to go to an out-of-state public school or $2,500 a year to go to a Washington area private school or a historically black university. And it's been -- it's something that families tell me has kept them in the District. As their kids get older, they know that they're going to have that help, and so they've stayed and sort of, you know, gone all the way through high school so their kids can get that subsidy.

  • 12:10:52

    NNAMDIBeen reading that since its inception in 2000, it's helped, according to your reporting, Emma, nearly 20,000 D.C. students with more than $317 million in college aid. What was the initial purpose of it? Was it created because the public university options available to D.C. students are not comparable to what's available to students in Maryland or Virginia? And -- yes, go ahead.

  • 12:11:17

    BROWNYeah. That's right. I think that's absolutely right. We do have the University of the District of Columbia, but it just doesn't have the same offerings and, frankly, the same reputation as a school like the University of Virginia or the University of Maryland at College Park.

  • 12:11:32

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're talking with Emma Brown. She's a reporter at The Washington Post about the new D.C. Promise program introduced by Councilmember David Catania and approved by the council tentatively. Anyway, do you have concerns about whether a new local scholarship program in the District would threaten the popular federal program that many students and families have taken advantage of since the year 2000?

  • 12:11:56

    NNAMDIWhy? Give us call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org. Or shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow. Emma, it's my understanding that David Catania and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson have said that they have tailored D.C. Promise so that it's a supplement, not any kind of replacement for DC TAG. What did they do to pare this down or scale it back or make it work as a supplement rather than a replacement?

  • 12:12:24

    BROWNWell, Kojo, the bill has changed a lot actually since Catania introduced it last fall. He originally wanted to give up to $20,000 a year to students, and only students who are in the public schools and public charter schools. And then he sort of downsized it 'cause there were a lot of concerns about how much that would cost. And it was up to $12,000 a year for kids in private schools, as well as the public schools.

  • 12:12:50

    BROWNAnd then after Norton raised concerns about DC TAG, he downsized it again to a maximum of $7,500 a year, so that's less than the maximum $10,000 that TAG can give a student. And then he also changed it so that, if you get Promise money, you can't use that Promise money for tuition at TAG-eligible schools, so you could only use it for books, room and board, other things like that.

  • 12:13:18

    BROWNAnd so Catania and Mendelson say, hey, it's different. This is a different bill. It's a different group of kids. It's a, you know, it's a supplement. It doesn't get rid of -- it doesn't replace TAG. And I think that it really -- the debate that's going on between Norton and the council really comes down to how similar is Promise to TAG, and will Congress see it as a replacement?

  • 12:13:42

    NNAMDIHave these modifications that the council that Catania and Chairman Mendelson have instituted, do they make any difference to D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton?

  • 12:13:53

    BROWNIt doesn't seem so. She issued a statement yesterday after the vote in which she said basically, like, I warned you guys that appropriators don't like this. And if we -- you know, I'll continue to fight for TAG, but if we lose it, I expect the residents of the District of Columbia to hold the council accountable.

  • 12:14:14

    NNAMDIEmma, have you talked with any members of Congress? Or have you heard from any members of Congress about this? Have they said that, yeah, or implied that if D.C. can fund their own scholarship program, Congress shouldn't be doing it for us anymore?

  • 12:14:28

    BROWNI asked Norton's office if they had any written communications from members, and they said that they had only had direct conversations. And then I spoke with the spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, so not to the head of the -- Sen. Mikulski who heads that committee, but to her spokesman. And he said that we will certainly keep a close eye on this, and it will factor into the amount that the Senate is willing to fund DC TAG next year.

  • 12:14:56

    NNAMDIHe said it will factor into the amount?

  • 12:15:00

    BROWNThe -- I will tell you the actual...

  • 12:15:04

    BROWNI will tell you exactly what he said. He said, if the bill becomes...

  • 12:15:06

    NNAMDI'Cause that promise sounds like a threat. Go ahead.

  • 12:15:09

    BROWNHe said, if the bill becomes law, the committee will certainly look closely at it when senators gauge the amount of federal money that should be set aside for DC TAG. So -- and he didn't say -- he wouldn't say how little would D.C. Promise have to be, you know, how small would the awards have to be in order to not interfere. That was a question that he didn't answer.

  • 12:15:30

    NNAMDIEmma, how are the raw politics affecting this? Your paper splashed a front-page article today about David Catania's mayoral ambitions. He may emerge as a major threat as an independent candidate later in the year. And he's clearly trying to leverage his chairmanship of the council's Education Committee into establishing a broader political profile. Is D.C. Promise a key ingredient, part of that?

  • 12:15:54

    BROWNI would say I think so. I mean, I think, you know, when I've been at evening meetings, Catania has been making a lot of -- meeting a lot of parents and a lot of very engaged voters by making the rounds at PTAs and civic association meetings. And D.C. Promise is always something that he speaks about as a necessity and really a sort of moral imperative for the city. So I think it does seem like something that he is pushing as a key part of what he's trying to build.

  • 12:16:27

    NNAMDILot of landmines in conversation about education in the District. Has David Catania done anything so far in his time as chairman of the Education Committee? He's known as being quite assertive, some would even say aggressive. But has he run the risk of making enemies to a potential mayoral candidacy with any of this?

  • 12:16:45

    BROWNI think -- you know, I think that, yes, I think in education, if you have an opinion, you probably have an enemy here in D.C. And so -- and, you know, he has come out in the last year on the Education Committee with a lot of proposals and a lot of opinions. And I think that, you know, that has won him some support among parents and among others who are glad to see the council taking a really active role. But it certainly has, I think, you know, caused friction with certain groups in the District for whom education is their thing.

  • 12:17:23

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Betsy in Washington, D.C. Betsy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:28

    BETSYHi. Well, first I want to say you have a great show. And I'm glad you're doing this program.

  • 12:17:34

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:17:36

    BETSYI am a parent of two kids in the D.C. Public Schools, so I've been studying this issue quite a bit. And I'm just a little concerned that we're putting D.C. taxpayer money towards college when we haven't yet readied our middle school and high school kids for college. So I'd rather see resources go that way. So I was planning on voting for David Catania, but I think now I'm looking more carefully at other candidates.

  • 12:18:00

    NNAMDIWhy, because you think this will cost us the DC TAG program?

  • 12:18:03

    BETSYThat's part of it, yes. So I -- but, again, I'd rather just have the resources go fully towards readying our pupils in D.C. for college in the future.

  • 12:18:18

    NNAMDIOkay. Well, I guess we'll be hearing a lot more about this over the course of the coming days. Betsy, thank you very much for your comment. Emma Brown, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:18:26


  • 12:18:27

    BROWNThanks for having me.

  • 12:18:28

    NNAMDIWe're going to be taking a short break. When we come back, as questions swirl about the rocky launch of healthcare.gov, we explore the future of government efficiency and effectiveness. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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