Say Yes to Education: Story of a Confused Voter

kids-girl-pencil-drawing-159823An older friend and I were talking about her job. She works at a small college in Western New York. Her job there is to teach music in the college’s small performing arts department. For a number of years, the college has been a step on the ladder of opportunity for first generation college students. She let me know that she was troubled by the fact that she had been getting lots more students in the last year who lacked some very fundamental educational skills. She would often spend the music lesson providing basic guidance related to reading or math, or organizational skills. She was unable to get to music theory or sight-reading when she had such trouble with these fundamental educational skills. Basic tasks were increasingly problematic for her students. She encountered increasing difficulty with scheduling lessons. She had students fail to show up for what were credit-bearing music lessons.

“Hmm. I am sorry to hear that. It must be frustrating. What do you think is going on?” I said.

“It’s that new government program, Say Yes to Education,” she said.  “All of these students are flooding the school unprepared to learn.”  She imparted responsibility in a vague way towards a particular political party.

That’s interesting.

Buffalo logo

I was familiar with Say Yes to Education. It is an initiative that was started by George Weiss, a successful money manager and private philanthropist passionate about expanding access to college education.

From the Say Yes to Education website, “Mr. Weiss believes that access to post-secondary education can truly change lives, especially for students facing enormous social and financial challenges. To this end, he created the Say Yes to Education foundation in 1987 with a promise to pay the full costs of college or vocational training for 112 students at the Belmont Elementary School, located in one of Philadelphia’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Since then, the Say Yes program has grown to include more than 130,000 public school students, community-wide, in the upstate New York cities of Syracuse and Buffalo, as well as Guilford County (Greensboro-High Point), North Carolina. The organization also has smaller chapters in Philadelphia and Harlem in New York City.”[1]

Toledo has considered becoming a site for Say Yes to Education. I am going to oversimplify, but the model is roughly as follows. A community calculates how many students graduate from high school per year, meeting predetermined needs criteria, such as the federal Free & Reduced Lunch guidelines.  Then, this number is multiplied by the cost of in-state tuition at the local colleges, perhaps with some negotiated discount. Once you know how much that is, you determine how many millions you need to raise each year to cover it – or the amount to be put into an endowment fund so that it is generating roughly that much in spendable earnings each year.

Local philanthropists, typically rallied by a community foundation, contribute to a capital campaign in order to get the initiative fully funded. For our community, back of the napkin calculations estimate that we would need over $150 million in an endowment to make this work. That’s assuming approximately 1000 eligible Toledo Public Schools graduates and tuition at community college and university averaging out to $7,500 to $10,000 per year after Pell and other grants.  This would require between $7,500,000 to $10 million per year.

Money like this exists in many metros above a certain size. Look at the annual contributions at your largest nonprofit organizations.  Consider the university foundations and all of the fundraising they do. We have a single homeless shelter that raised approximately $4 million one recent year. Our United Way raises nearly $12 to 15 million each year.

There are aspects of the model which require a support system be put in place for student success. Some of this may come from local governmental agencies, nonprofits and the educational system using existing staff, but in a different way.  Collaboration is key.  For communities that sign on, Say Yes to Education Foundation provides a generous start-up infusion, of perhaps $10 or $15 million, much of which goes towards this number-crunching, analysis of local needs, and support in building out the initiative.

The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo spearheaded the Say Yes to Education initiative there. Its website has this to say about the project:  “The Say Yes Buffalo Scholarship Fund administered by the Community Foundation is an important component of the larger Say Yes Buffalo initiative, which will radically improve the life course of an entire generation of public school students living in the City of Buffalo. In addition, it will also provide a powerful engine for the City’s long term economic development.

While the goal of Say Yes Buffalo is implementing district-wide school improvements that will increase post-secondary completion rates, the “glue” that holds together the disparate partners necessary to accomplish such comprehensive systems change is the scholarship. The Say Yes Buffalo tuition scholarship is a commitment to provide every eligible graduate from a Buffalo Public High School or Charter School with up to 100% of the tuition needed to attend a public post-secondary institution.

Thanks to the support of our generous Angel Donors who have contributed more than $19 million, almost 1,000 students headed off to college in 2013. Many of those students wouldn’t have had that opportunity without the Say Yes Buffalo partnership.

However, financial aid for college is just one component of the effort, which seeks to remove all barriers to educational success. To address the academic, health and behavioral challenges our students face, Say Yes Buffalo and its partners are putting people and programs run by respected community-based organizations directly into Buffalo Public School buildings.

To guide this work, Say Yes Buffalo created and launched a Student Management System— the first of its kind to be rolled out to a public school district in the nation. This comprehensive system tracks attendance, health, behavioral and academic indicators based on input from parents, students, school counselors, and teachers to identify whether students are on track academically. If they are not, the system helps connect students to the different supports and services available to put them back on track.

By removing financial, academic, social and health barriers to educational attainment, Say Yes Buffalo will upgrade the skills in our local job pool as these students go on to graduate from college or postsecondary vocational training. The choice is theirs.”[2]

Once can debate the challenges facing the university system in America and the value of a college degree, especially as it relates to choice of major and vocational demand. However, one cannot debate the source of the funding for the Say Yes to Education initiative. It is philanthropy. Government, in the form of the local public school district, the Mayor, and other leading social services agencies, are certainly major partners. Without their cooperation and commitment of existing resources, it would certainly not be possible to institute the Say Yes to Education model.  I would surmise that Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown has been in the media to a significant degree.  But this is not a government-funded initiative.

It is troubling that well-educated voters like my friend would be so misguided regarding the source of funding for a major effort like this.  Say Yes to Education is viewed as yet another excessive government overspend by those without the facts.  When I explained that this initiative was funded by private philanthropy, I was met with suspicion and doubt. But that’s the thing in America – philanthropy has the freedom to come along and say, “We want all poor children to have access to a college education,” and it often has the ability to make it happen. Many just don’t know how this all works. The public and the private are bound up in a very unique way in this country.

What other misunderstandings persist among voters our local civic environments? How pervasive are they? What effects are they having?  It is time we started to consider these and other questions and consider what they mean for our democracy.


[1] Say Yes to Education website,

[2] Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo website,

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