The Promise Zone law allows communities that secure enough private funding to also use some state tax revenue to pay students' college tuition. The program is currently limited to 10 high-poverty areas.
The legislation , which was approved 89-18 by the Republican-led House, would authorize 15 zones. Four communities, including Flint, have been on a waiting list since 2009, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury. The others are the Forest Park School District in the western Upper Peninsula, the Covert Public School District in Van Buren County and the city of River Rouge near Detroit.
The measure was first introduced in 2012 but has gained momentum in the wake of the crisis in Flint, where drinking water was contaminated with lead and people died from Legionnaires' disease. In the summer, $2 million in private donations were announced for the "Flint Promise" initiative. The GOP-led Senate on Wednesday will send the bill to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder for his expected signature.
The 10 existing promise programs vary but at a minimum must cover tuition and fees to obtain at least an associate's degree from a community college. Some also cover the cost of a bachelor's degree. The programs typically require low-income students to first apply for need-based federal Pell Grants or the state's Tuition Incentive Program.
The bill sponsor, Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich of Flint, said city residents continue to have little trust in government after the man-made disaster, but the legislation would give them "some hope."
"If I know that my kid's at least going to have tuition-free community college or university, it gives people an incentive to stick around and make Flint better," he said.
Flint's plan is still being developed, but Ananich said it may offer students' extra incentives to attend college locally — either at Mott Community College or the University of Michigan-Flint.
Communities must raise enough money to pay for scholarships on their own for two years before they can begin keeping half of their annual incremental growth in state education tax revenue to help fund their promises.