Friday, September 29, 2023

We Must Cast A New Vision for Our Young People. Here’s How the American Rescue Plan Can Help.

Guest Editorial by Rev. John C. Jones and Elizabeth Gaines 

We are at a critical moment. Programs and services for children have never before received an investment of the magnitude seen in the American Rescue Plan, the federal government’s $1.9 trillion relief package designed to help the nation recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. What we do now—including here, locally, in greater Toledo—will have ripple effects on our youth, families, and workforce for the next generation.

The relief plan is divided into multiple “buckets” that communities and states can target to overcome negative economic impacts and address deep inequities that affect our children. A sizeable amount is being directed to federal agencies and states that they then deploy to local communities; but the American Rescue Plan also includes funding specifically for our community. The City of Toledo is receiving more than $180 million, Lucas County more than $80 million, and Toledo Public Schools more than $120 million. Meanwhile, other local entities like Washington Local Schools, other surrounding school districts and our area’s higher education institutions are receiving more than $70 million in relief funding.           

Although the federal government has placed parameters (we like to call them guardrails) to guide how and when the funds are spent, this infusion of funding offers numerous possibilities to support the children and families in our city. But we must use our collective creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to deploy the American Rescue Plan funds effectively and inclusively. Most importantly, this investment cannot be piecemeal or a one-off, but instead must provide a collective bridge or down payment toward a sustained investment in our young people and families for the next generation. 

We must cast the right vision for our children’s future. This is how we work together to achieve it. 

  • Collaborate intentionally to ensure equitable outcomes.

The triple pandemic of a global health crisis, widespread economic hardship, and a reckoning with racism during the past 18 months highlighted what many already knew, but fewer chose to acknowledge: Many of our Toledo neighborhoods are steeped in inequity. There is a significant gap in school readiness between poor children and those from moderate or higher income families. In fact, more than 80% of Toledo’s children enter kindergarten without the skills they need to begin learning and they continue to fall behind.

Concomitantly, our city also faces an educational attainment issue: Fewer than 20% of adults possess a bachelor’s degree or higher. We know this impacts our workforce in direct ways. Often, the disparate gaps are seen along both socioeconomic and racial lines.

The American Rescue Plan funds offer a chance to address these disparities and expand equitable outcomes for our children but only if our federal, state, and local decision-makers collaborate, coordinate, and share resources. To serve our children effectively, our school districts, health and human service agencies, parks and recreation department, and others must work together in a coordinated and strategic manner. This plan must be inclusive and cannot pay lip service to representation and equity at the beginning only to trail off into business as usual. Admittedly, this type of collaboration may initially feel overwhelming since it requires providers and agencies to work across service areas—an approach that, sadly, is not the norm. But through a strategic and coordinated approach we can braid together sufficient funding to support our community-based providers, maximize the impact of the federal relief funds, and provide substantial investments to communities that need the most.      

  • Invest in people and operations to ensure efficiency.

Toledo is fortunate to have many kind and caring people and that has translated into a plethora of nonprofit agencies and private small businesses that serve youth. But our city’s providers and social service agencies have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and staffing has waned significantly. Additionally, many of these entities remain underfunded and lack the administrative resources and knowledge to ensure efficiency, which could limit their abilities to use the American Rescue Plan funds effectively.

One of the worst things that could happen in this moment is for available resources to be      squandered on one-off projects with minimal oversight and poor outcomes. Consequently, local service providers and our city offices must commit more resources to administration to ensure accountability and adherence to regulations. The relief funds offer an opportunity to create a stronger support system for our child- and youth-serving programs if we coordinate and centralize administrative functions across providers. Many of our communities, especially those in the central city and rural areas, have seen significant disinvestment. The relief funding has the potential to begin addressing that issue if we ensure our providers and agencies have the proper administrative support to provide their services efficiently.

Additionally, it is imperative that our community-based child care centers, many of whom are small business owners, are valued as a vital piece of our educational tapestry. Consequently, we must ensure they can pay their teachers competitive wages; provide full-day, curriculum-rich instruction; allow their educators professional development and planning time; reduce classroom ratios; and evaluate and assess the progress of our children.

  • Transparency is vital to success.

Federal relief funds, like those in the American Rescue Plan, carry an inherent obligation for local leaders to engage with community members on spending decisions. Consequently, everyone—from local and state government leaders to school administrators to direct service providers to families—has a role to ensure a transparent process for allocating and using the relief funds in an equitable and inclusive manner to support positive gains for our children.

We cannot afford to allow another generation to go by without the requisite support to ensure a strong start and an equitable future. Now is the time to act. Here is what you can do:

  • Visit Children’s Funding Project to learn more about the American Rescue Plan, how it can help, and to access resources designed to help local communities direct the federal COVID-19 relief funds toward children and youth.      
  • Learn more about HOPE Toledo and what the 501c3 is doing to support and ensure high-quality education—from preschool to postsecondary and trade school—for every young person in the city of Toledo to create generational economic change for the betterment of our families and community.     

Rev. John C. Jones is president of HOPE Toledo and Elizabeth Gaines is executive director of Children’s Funding Project.

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