Dollars For Scholars

Paying kids for good grades is a popular (if questionable) parenting tactic. But when school starts next week, New York City will try to use the same enticement to get parents in low-income neighborhoods more involved in their children's education and overall health. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has raised more than $40 million (much of it from his own money and the Rockefeller Foundation) to pay families a modest amount for small tasks—$50 for getting a library card or $100 to take a child to the dentist—that could make a big difference.

The experimental program, called Opportunity NYC, is modeled on a 10-year-old Mexican program called Oportunidades, which has been so successful in reducing poverty in rural areas that it has been adopted by more than 20 countries, including Argentina and Turkey. International studies have found that these programs raise school enrollment and vaccination rates and lower the number of sick days students take. Bringing this idea to Harlem and the South Bronx may not make a radical difference, concedes Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor for Health and Human Services. But, she adds, "It makes these activities matter in a new way." Gibbs thinks that the money could also make parents more active in asking for services that might not exist in their neighborhoods. "A mother might demand an early-intervention evaluation [to look for developmental or learning disabilities] for a child" to get the $150 payment, Gibbs says. "If she can't find a doctor to do it, the cash incentive might make Mom more likely to ask why those services aren't available in her community." Schools chancellor Joel Klein says he hopes that the money will "get our students more interested in performing well at school, and the positive reinforcement they receive as well will, in turn, get them excited about the learning."

The idea behind Opportunity NYC is called conditional cash transfer, and the program is the first of its kind in this country. It's also the exact opposite of traditional social services for the poor, which hand out money without demanding much in return. In order to find out whether this reversal works, the city is enlisting 5,000 families to take part in the social experiment. They are being chosen randomly from lists of people getting housing assistance from the city. Half will receive the incentive money and the other half won't but will function as a control group, similar to clinical trials where some patients get a drug and others get a placebo. Eligible families earn just above federal poverty guidelines, or about $22,321 for a family of three.

Since the initial announcement in March, conservatives have denounced the program as a waste of money that should be given to teachers willing to work in tough schools, while liberals have called the idea insulting and patronizing to the people it aims to help. But some skeptics are hopeful. "At first blush, this offends every sensibility I have," says James Oddo, the Republican minority leader of the New York City Council. "But then the fiscal conservative in me takes over and I think maybe it will cost me less as a taxpayer to pay a little on the front end."

At this point, taxpayers aren't being asked to pay anything. Bloomberg decided to roll out Opportunity NYC with private funds in order to evaluate the program for two years without having to endure what could have been a bruising political battle. One potential foe, Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, says she generally opposes any pay for good behavior, even giving teachers more money if their students do well.

But if it can help families who live in the city's poorest neighborhoods, it may be a risk worth taking. Some of the Opportunity NYC participants will come from East New York, a predominantly black and Hispanic corner of Brooklyn where half of the residents live below the poverty level and only half of all adults are high-school graduates. The local high school was shut down in June after years of abysmal academic performance and a graduation rate hovering around 29 percent. Other poor Brooklyn neighborhoods have benefited from an influx of professionals looking to escape Manhattan rents, but East New York is still desperately seeking help—and hope. "The lack of education and of significant wage earners are the biggest challenges," says Bill Wilkens, coordinator of East New York's Local Development Corporation. "This is the last frontier." A bold experiment could be just what East New York needs.

Dollars For Scholars | Education