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What Exactly Do Obama’s Zones Have to Do With Education, Anyway?

By Alyson Klein — January 09, 2014 3 min read
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San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma were all tapped today by President Barack Obama to be the first areas designated as “Promise Zones”, which is part of a great big Obama administration interagency collaboration aimed at bolstering economic development in high poverty communities. The U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Agriculture all have a piece of this action.

How much money do each of these areas get from the feds, due to their designation as a Promise Zone? None, directly. Instead, they get help from the administration in cutting federal bureaucratic red tape. They also get priority for existing federal funding, from 25 different grant competitions across a range of federal agencies. And they’ll get an assist from a small influx of on-the-ground federal employees, and AmeriCorps volunteers.

The administration is hoping to eventually expand the program to up to 20 communiites. And they’re hoping that Congress will approve special tax breaks for Promise Zones.

It’s still unclear, at this point, which Education Department compeititions will give an edge to Promise Zones. But they’ll definitely get a leg-up in the similarly-branded Promise Neighborhood competition, which offers communities “planning” and “implementation” grants of up to $6 million a year for five years. The program is modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, and the goal is to pair education with wrap-around services, such as early childhood education. The “planning” grants usually precede the larger “implementation” grants and are meant to help finance an assesment to figure out what a community needs in terms of education, social services, and economic development, and how to make it happen.

So far, nonprofits in at least three of the five Promise Zones actually already have Promise Neighborhood Implementation grants. And at least one has a “planning” grant. So it’s unclear what the new designation will really mean for future competitions.

Plus, funding increases for the program are uncertain. The roughly $60 milllion Promise Neighborhood program, was initially pretty popular in Congress. But it has faced pushback, as lawmakers have questioned whether it makes sense to dole out a bunch of planning grants to finance programs that may or may not come to fruition. So far, most communities that have gotten “planning grants” haven’t made it to the implementation stage. In fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is controlled by Democrats, voted earlier this year to slice a proposed $43 million increase for the program and direct it instead to special education.

So what are the Promise Zones that have already won Education Department Grants doing with the money? Los Angeles, Calif. is planning a partnership between the Youth Policy Institute and the Los Angeles Unified School District to expand its “Full Service Community School” program from 7 to 45 schools by 2019. Berea College in Kentucky, which is part of the Southeastern, Kentucky Promise Zone is aiming to run an evidence-based college- and career-readiness program.

And United Way of San Antonio & Bexar County, Inc. also got an “implementation” grant for the department’s Promise Neighborhood initiative. Their proposal includes a new on focus on instruction of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in pre-kindergarten through high school. A White House fact sheet on the program also highlighted the city’s preschool program, which definitely predates its Promise Neighborhood designation.

Plus, Universal Community Homes, a non-profit in Philadelphia has won a “planning” grant, which help neighborhoods think through how they want to structure social services, arts programs, education, and other programs to further a variety of goals, including bolstering graduation rates and closing the achievement gap. Philadelphia’s Promise Zone plan includes using data to improve teacher training, and expanding mentorship programs for at-risk kids.

Meanwhile, the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma is planning to work with 85 school districts to boost early literacy.

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