The Promise of Davenport, Iowa

Davenport, Iowa, a city of 100,000 on the banks of the Mississippi River, was America’s original gateway to the West. A historic community, they have a proud heritage of innovation. They were an incubator of jazz, home of the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River, site of the first chiropractic adjustment, and host of other innovations. Legend has it that they even invented sliced bread (and have a patent to prove it). But if they succeed in establishing the Davenport Promise, all of those accomplishments could be surpassed.

ARTICLE | Jan 21, 2010

Karen Thoreson, President, Alliance for Innovation

Karen Thoreson, President, Alliance for Innovation

Davenport, Iowa, a city of 100,000 on the banks of the Mississippi River, was America’s original gateway to the West. A historic community, they have a proud heritage of innovation. They were an incubator of jazz, home of the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River, site of the first chiropractic adjustment, and host of other innovations. Legend has it that they even invented sliced bread (and have a patent to prove it). But if they succeed in establishing the Davenport Promise, all of those accomplishments could be surpassed.

Davenport, like many historic cities east of the Great Plains and north of the Mason-Dixon line, has been challenged by economic competition. Davenport was recognized in 2007 as the nation’s most livable small city by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and boasts remarkable affordability and quality of life, but it faces the same global economic competition that has caused tens of millions of manufacturing jobs to be lost across the Midwest and Northeast. As Davenport took a close look at its workforce and changing employment environment, it found almost one-third of its workforce was eligible to retire in the next decade, and more than a quarter of all currently vacant positions require a bachelor’s degree. The future will set the educational standard even higher. According to information compiled by Davenport’s Promise Task Force, two-thirds of current jobs and every one of Iowa’s top ten growing jobs requires some postsecondary education.

Compare those facts, however, to these: one in four of Davenport’s children live in poverty, and the same statistic applies to the Davenport School District dropout rate. The Davenport Promise—a partnership of the City of Davenport, the local school districts, and the community—envisioned something better for the city’s children and their future. They proposed the Promise, a community grant program that would provide:

scholarships for college or vocational training for every qualifying Davenport student who graduates from high school

veterans’ homestead grants for returning military to assist in purchasing a Davenport home

city property tax cap for low-income seniors or disabled homeowners.

They proposed to do this through a reallocation of 30 percent of a 1 cent Local Option Sales Tax. This is not a new tax, but one approved two decades before to help pay for traditional capital improvement projects. An economic analysis undertaken by the Upjohn Institute indicated that the Promise effort would generate new sustainable growth in population and economic activity to more than replace the lost revenue for infrastructure, while making the most critical investment of all—providing access to education, building a skilled workforce, and making Davenport an even better place to live, work, and invest.

As in many states, the decision of how to allocate these revenues was required to be brought to the voters. The Davenport City Council agreed to place the item on the ballot, and the vote was scheduled for March 3, 2009. Here is the story took a small detour. The vote failed 6,000 to 9,000, with more than 25,000 registered voters not voting in the special election. Many felt the no tax increase/better future for every child referendum was such a shoo-in that they didn’t vote. But Davenport is a community of considerable resilience and pluck. A new approach to supporting universal, post secondary education is being explored by the City, Davenport School District, and business community. It will utilize a provision of Iowa’s Charter School legislation to permit concurrent high school / college credit for classes taken by high school students.

What can be learned from this inspiring and far-reaching proposal? Whereas some similar promise programs are funded by public dollars at the state level or private dollars in a handful of communities, Davenport was the first city in the nation to place a publicly funded, universal postsecondary education initiative on the ballot. By law, neither the city nor school districts were permitted to engage in advocacy on the referendum. In this information vacuum, media messaging became confused and confrontational. The media focused on "free college" without substantive discussion on the impact of regional workforce quality on community competitiveness. Independent estimates of program impact were challenged, and whether the city should be involved at all in a "school issue" was as a significant concern by many opposed not to the program but the funding mechanism.

Davenport’s City Administrator, Craig Malin, says, "Davenport was a pioneer with a local referendum approach for universal postsecondary education. It was an effort vetted through two citizen panels and an independent research entity over the course of a year and a half, but the reality is pioneering work often does not succeed on its first attempt. The more important issue is Davenport was able to have a community conversation on economic sustainability and quality of life through workforce improvement by investing in our future—our children. I’m proud that Davenport was a leader in having this community conversation and that by listening to each other through the conversation we’ve found a new path to universal postsecondary education for Davenport children. We fail our children at our own peril. Davenport, I know, will not let that happen."

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