In June, the city of Memphis, Tennessee, lost funding for 1,000 pre-K slots due to an expiring federal grant.
Under pressure to invest in education, Mayor Jim Strickland announced the city would commit $6 million toward pre-K funding, though that amount would not completely offset the lost federal funds.
Sadly, the tenuous nature of federal grants affecting vital services for children is not uncommon. Instead of passively accepting the void in federal leadership, cities such as Memphis are finding innovative ways to bring together the public, private and nonprofit sectors to finance and expand needed services for children, and increasing pressure on local officials to reinvest in child services.
This era of “new localism” is focused on closing opportunity gaps for children by providing more equitable access to services such as pre-K, health and mental health care, enrichment opportunities and higher education.
It’s no secret that America’s children are struggling, even though we have ample resources that we could commit to changing the odds. We have not focused on providing opportunities for all children to succeed. Well over half of our fourth- and eighth-graders aren’t proficient in math and reading. Roughly 15 million children in American — or one in every five — live in poverty. Children of color have higher rates of exposure to violence, poor health and homelessness than white children. There is clear evidence that targeted interventions, like early childhood education, can increase the likelihood of well-being and success throughout a person’s life.
But rather than focusing on positive and proactive interventions, the country spends more than $80 billion annually on prisons, incarcerating more people than any other country in the world. We obviously need to shift our nation’s priorities.
Our organizations — Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab and The Children’s Funding Project — have been working community by community to support the growing cradle-to-career grassroots movement. We have seen local leaders in these communities step up and build the foundations for more hopeful futures for children and youth. To do so, they have needed to generate new resources and identify innovative strategies for addressing the diverse needs of children and families.
We recently published a report — “Innovative Financing to Expand Programming and Services So Children Can Thrive” — to illuminate some of the more creative options that communities can leverage to generate resources and become pioneers for expanded children’s services. (Note: this report received financial support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, both of which are among the supporters of The Hechinger Report.) These strategies range in impact and difficulty, and some have been more practiced in the children’s advocacy world than others. For example, one method is to create a dedicated children’s fund using revenue from voter-approved tax increases, including “sin” taxes (on tobacco, marijuana, alcohol and sweetened beverages), property taxes and sales tax.
In 2018 alone, a diverse group of communities successfully passed measures to establish “children’s funds” in Jackson County, Missouri; San Francisco; Kent County, Michigan; and Alachua County, Florida. Other methods tap into business that is already occurring in the community to better benefit children and youth, such as negotiating with developers of stadiums and commercial property through Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs), and entering Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) agreements with local and national banks.
Pittsburgh provides a good example of a community that successfully implemented an innovative method to fund youth programming. In 2008, the One Hill Coalition, a diverse group of 100 community groups in the city, brokered a collective-bargaining agreement with the developers of the new Pittsburgh Penguins arena. The agreement created a youth center and invested $8.3 million in neighborhood improvements, much of which went toward youth development programs.
Similarly, the mayor of Memphis, Tennessee, set an example by advocating for children and dedicating tax revenue from business tax breaks set to expire. These funds are going directly to pre-K programming, helping to cover the loss of funding for 1,000 seats due to declining federal investment. In total, the revenues will bring the city an estimated $6 million annually by 2022.
For cities in which significant land is owned by nonprofit organizations, hospitals and/or universities, PILOT payments (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) are being directed to fund early childhood education, health and mental health services, after-school and summer enrichment programming, and college and career access services. In Boston, these payments augment the traditional K-12 education system and help low-income children gain access to the middle class.
Working locally, we can build a stronger nation where opportunity is a reality for all, and every child has what he or she needs to grow up healthy, educated and thriving. Local leaders are pioneering new methods of obtaining funding for children, but it is difficult to generate the total amount needed. Therefore, it is critical that no money be left on the table. Investing early in children’s health, education and well-being has tremendous economic payoffs in the future, requiring fewer investments in social safety-net programs and the criminal justice system.
Enlightened local officials know that the future of their communities ultimately depends on the success of their children. We are hopeful that this movement will grow, with more leaders and activists finding their strengths and adopting the pioneering strategies outlined in our report. The nation must shift its priorities away from merely meeting the minimum of basic needs to providing ample opportunities for success to the next generation.
Jennifer Davis, a senior adviser at Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab, is a former Clinton administration education official.
Elizabeth Gaines is the founder and director of The Children’s Funding Project.