Academic challenges are just the tip of the iceberg for many schools that serve low-income communities: many of their students lack access to safe living situations, healthy, well-balanced meals, and healthcare, among other quality-of-life factors. Though many federal programs exist to address these concerns, they are currently disjointed and uncoordinated. In 2010, the Obama administration launched an effort to evaluate how federal programs are concentrated in high-need communities and encourage greater cross-agency cooperation. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released a progress report exploring its own efforts to implement these so-called “place-based” strategies.
Place-based strategies attempt to provide more meaningful and comprehensive services in a given community by ensuring that the agencies providing those services are well-coordinated and conscious of the connected nature of the issues they address. By tackling the issues different communities face in tandem, the theory goes, the federal government will be able to eliminate duplicative services, fill in funding gaps, and better serve the neediest communities.
Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to have low school attendance, high incidences of health problems, and diminished verbal skills compared to their counterparts in wealthier neighborhoods, all of which affect their academic outcomes. Place-based strategies are meant to break down the walls between federal programs and ensure the efficient, well-targeted delivery of federal dollars and services. They address deficiencies in services that are concentrated in geographic areas, and work to contain and relieve those communities’ problems. For the Department of Education (ED), then, meeting the initiative’s goals means simultaneously taking on kids’ academic and poverty-driven challenges.
The Department of Education’s main place-based program is, of course, Promise Neighborhoods, which provides money to communities to plan and implement comprehensive, cradle-to-career services like high-quality schools, access to healthcare, and employment assistance offices. The program, which received nearly $60 million in federal funds in fiscal year 2012, became a part of the White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (NRI) in 2010. That effort couples Promise Neighborhood grants with Choice Neighborhood grants (a Department of Housing and Urban Development program that seeks to improve low-income housing, public transportation, and other services), as well as services from other agencies. Combined, the programs provide more comprehensive funding and services for high-needs students and their families.
But the Promise Neighborhoods program is not the only federal program that uses a comprehensive services approach. The Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative (SC2) pulls together 12 federal agencies – including the Department of Education – to provide a full continuum of services in six cities. A team of federal employees appointed by the agencies’ heads works directly with each city to provide support – with individualized assistance to meet the city’s needs, as defined by the local government. The program is being piloted with the goal of increasing local governments’ capacity to implement major systemic reforms.
And even some of the No Child Left Behind flexibility waivers – we’ve written about them here and here – included an element of place-based approaches, the Department says in its progress report. For example, Colorado used its application to improve its Unified Improvement Planning (UIP) practices, combining six separate federal funding sources into one broad planning process.
To effectively implement a place-based strategy, though, bureaucracies need a way to sort through information and deliver services efficiently and appropriately – this time by location rather than by federal program. The School District Demographic System Map Viewer currently shows achievement and demographic data by state, district, and school, with the goal of linking NCES map codes to education statistics, Census data, and grant information. Now, NCES is working to expand the tool to include new mapping technology that would link that information to cities and towns, rather than the more-arbitrary school district boundaries. That technology could enable school districts, communities, and states to join in new place-based partnerships and better target the federal dollars they win to the highest-need communities.
The goals of place-based strategies are noble. But building a suite of services that prevents high-need populations from falling through the cracks through a coordinated patchwork of federal funding will be challenging, to say the least. Even the very early stages of pushing this initiative reveal one truth: Cutting that red tape will be no small task. Current grant recipients have struggled to implement ambitious plans, face uncertain funding streams given the political volatility of Congress, and have seen mixed results in research.
Place-based strategies could change the way communities address deep-rooted problems of poverty and provide education to the highest-need communities. But the Department of Education – along with the eleven other agencies engaged in place-based efforts – will face significant challenges to merging massive bureaucracies and revising federal programs to address the individual needs of communities, all while remaining accountable to taxpayers.