From Blueprint to Blue Ribbon: How Franklin County, OH Is Using Rescue Plan Dollars to Stabilize—and Revitalize—Child Care - Early Learning Nation

From Blueprint to Blue Ribbon: How Franklin County, OH Is Using Rescue Plan Dollars to Stabilize—and Revitalize—Child Care

Franklin County—the most populous county in Ohio and home to Ohio State University (OSU)—is also one of the Buckeye State’s wealthiest counties, but there are pockets of economic insecurity. According to Scioto Analysis (which is located in Franklin County), more than a quarter of Black residents live in poverty. And while federal funding generally kept Franklin County poverty from worsening during the pandemic, more than 220 of its child care centers closed.

Commissioner Erica Crawley

“Enrollment was down,” explains Franklin County Commissioner Erica Crawley, “and they couldn’t pay teachers a competitive wage.”

The City of Columbus supported early educators with $250 signing bonuses and made 250 scholarships available for families. It was a start, Crawley says, but it wasn’t impactful. As an Ohio state legislator at the time, Crawley was elected to the county leadership role and that’s when things started happening.

“The first thing I did,” she recalls, “was meet with our resource and referral agency, and they had a list of things to invest in. I said, ‘Cool, let’s do all of them.’” Activating $24 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, Franklin County approved:

  • Sign-on bonuses for new staff
  • Nearly 600 child care scholarships
  • Incentive payments to programs that serve low-income families or care for children during nontraditional hours
  • Bonuses for programs that increase their ratings from Ohio’s Step Up to Quality system
  • Subsidizing wages for providers through pilots with YWCA and the Childhood League

“ARPA allowed us to really come from behind and move ahead of the pack,” Commissioner Crawley says. “We’re showing what investment from the government can make possible.”

But Wait, There’s More

When an additional infusion of cash was announced in January, Franklin County board president John O’Grady said, “Our region is expected to add more than 700,000 people in the next few decades, which won’t be possible or sustainable unless we find ways to support high-quality early learning centers and help make child care more affordable for families.”

All told, Franklin County will invest $42 million of its ARPA funds in child care by 2026.

“The Franklin County RISE initiative is showing other counties how to be bold and strategic in child care investments, and we are seeing others follow in those footsteps to use their federal relief dollars to support children,” says Reginald Harris of the Children’s Funding Project. “Commissioner Crawley, and other visionary leaders like her, play a critical role as champions for funding for kids.”

👉 Find ARPA Funding In Your Community (Children’s Funding Project)

Commissioner Crawley with her twins, Hope and Faith

Commissioner Crawley’s personal experience as a struggling mother of young twins fuels her dedication to child care. “I was on government assistance after I had my children,” she recalls. “When I started working, I didn’t qualify for publicly funded child care and had to pay for child care out of pocket. Without my children’s godmother, I couldn’t have afforded the thousand dollars per month.”

She’s also seen the adverse consequences of under-investment. “What I learned 20-something years ago,” she says, “is that this is how we divert our kids from the criminal justice system.”  On the morning we spoke, Commissioner Crawley had just come from an administrative hearing about building a 2,200-bed, billion-dollar jail. “What would that money do for our kiddos that are 0 to 5? It would change their trajectory,” she asserts.

Little and Incredible

For Rae Stewart, founder of Little Incredibles in Columbus, that money made the difference between closing down and thriving. “That sign-on bonus definitely helped get a lot of people in the door,” she says. “And if families tell me they don’t receive public funding, but that it still hurts them to pay so much, I can offer them the right scholarship.” In her neighborhood, she notes, there are many families who make a little bit too much to qualify for publicly funded child care but not enough to really pay out of pocket.

Courtesy Little Incredibles

A former kindergarten teacher, Stewart knows the difference that early education can make. Some of her kindergarteners, she notes, “couldn’t even tell me their first and last name verbally. They didn’t know letters. They couldn’t hold pencils.”

She adds, “Once you get to five, sometimes it’s too late. It’s difficult to get children to develop a love for learning.”

From Blueprint to Blue Ribbon

In 2019, when Franklin County released its Rise Together Blueprint for Reducing Poverty, the pandemic wasn’t on the authors’ minds, but the thought and planning that went into the document positioned the county to take action on behalf of its low-income residents. Many of the participants in listening sessions mentioned child care as a concern. “There aren’t any child care options to cover [my daughter] when she isn’t in school that I can afford,” said one. “The cost would wipe out my savings and make it hard to cover rent. I’m afraid I will have to quit working and go back on welfare.” The Blueprint calls for increased access to star-rated, quality child care

According to Trudy Bartley, associate vice president for Local and Community Relations, OSU, the Blueprint “enabled Commissioner Crawley to be a visionary. We’re not going to have universal child care, but what can we do in the interim until we get there?”

Bartley describes Franklin County as a “tapestry” of parents, schools, business and nonprofits. OSU engages in the tapestry via its Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Schoenbaum Family Center and Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy, among other efforts.  “How do we really come together and not be so territorial and divisive?” she asks.  “And I think that when you look at the Rise Together Blueprint, that’s what the county has done.”

The question everyone is asking now is how Franklin County will sustain its investment after the ARPA money runs out in 2026. Commissioner Crawley mentions a ballot initiative as one possibility, building on precedents in St. Louis, Multnomah County, Ore. and Kent County, Mich.

For Little Incredibles’ owner Stewart, remaining afloat means she can focus on her goals of building her “dream team” of educators and getting her five-star rating. “Once I have that under my belt, I’ll seek to open up more five-star-rated centers around Columbus.”

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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