More than two years after President Obama took office with a pledge to expand the Harlem Children’s Zone idea to 20 communities across the nation, the Senate has introduced legislation that would make the program permanent.
Up until now, the Promise Neighborhoods program—the centerpiece of the President’s pledge—has received only temporary authority by Congress through annual spending bills.
Promise Neighborhoods is an important element of the Obama administration’s effort to promote innovative thinking in solving social problems.
In this case, the goal is to break down barriers between existing educational and social-service programs by creating umbrella groups that serve a wide array of needs in a single neighborhood. Under the approach, parents get prenatal attention and learn how to nurture a child, and family members and youngsters all participate in efforts to help kids make the transition to school, college, and career.
Nonprofits lead the neighborhood efforts, and much of the money to run them has come from private sources, including foundations and local United Ways.
To date, the program has received modest levels of federal support— just $10-million in 2010 and $30-million this year. The first year’s spending is now being used to help plan projects in 21 communities that will integrate education and social services in poor neighborhoods. Those grantees will vie later this year for some of the 2011 money ,which will help them carry out those programs.
The program’s small size belies its importance, however. It is part of the administration’s overall emphasis on programs that have proven results and continuous measurement of success. In addition, nonprofit coalitions need to compete to win the money, putting the emphasis more on performance than on other factors that sometimes influence where federal money goes.
In the long run, the administration clearly envisions transforming many much larger social-service and educational programs, worth billions of dollars annually, along the same lines.
The new bill was introduced this week by Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa. It would authorize two kinds of grants: grants for nonprofits and grants for schools.
For both, nonprofits and schools would work together, but the lead applicant would differ in each case.
That is somewhat different from the administration’s original vision, in which nonprofits (like Harlem Children’s Zone) have played a stronger lead role. This change may have been made because local nonprofits in some smaller communities may lack the capacity to be strong lead applicants. It may also have been a political nod to the education establishment.
One notable improvement over the way Promise Neighborhoods works now is the bill’s emphasis on getting a large number of kids to participate in the education efforts.
The first round of Promise Neighborhoods grantees included several neighborhoods that were quite large.
But unless government and private organizations spend a lot of money, it will be impossible to serve a large percentage of children in each neighborhood.
So the bill emphasizes high participation rates and, indirectly, the idea of expanding slowly—much as the Harlem Children’s Zone itself did over the past decade. That project began with a zone just 24 blocks in size and grew to its current 97 blocks. Harlem Children’s Zone has said that at least 65 percent of young people in a neighborhood need to participate before the culture of the local community can be transformed.
The next step for the new bill is consideration in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which Mr. Harkin chairs.
The bill is unlikely to move ahead on its own, however. Instead, it is likely to be included as part of a larger renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind), the principal federal law governing elementary and secondary education.
The fate of that larger bill will depend on the two parties in Congress reaching bipartisan agreement.