Director’s Log | March 2021

The Back End of the One-and-One

Funding from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) is barreling toward North Carolina and I haven’t yet heard anyone saying no.

Among other things, the Plan will bring billions to the state to help families find their way back from job loss, debt and hunger; will help schools and students overcome learning loss; will help businesses fight back from loss of sales and employees. Regardless of which side of the political aisle you sit on, it will go a long way toward helping the state “build back.”

But unless we are intentional, it won’t ensure that we build back “better.” Or at least not as “better” as we could.

That part is up to us. Think of our state standing at the foul line with the front end of a one-and-one. We get one free shot. The question is whether we can aim the first shot well enough to get the chance to score twice.

Education:

There’s no question the ARP is a game changer on a variety of the biggest issues facing the state. A close reading of the ARP by Ferrel Guillory of EducationNC suggests that it will send an estimated $3.6 billion to North Carolina’s K-12 schools, with 90% of it going to local school districts. The strings attached require school systems to spend some of that money to help students recover from learning loss and speed up reopening while also prohibiting states from “supplanting” – using federal funds to replace existing state funding.

But there is no requirement that we coordinate this Washington manna with existing plans the state already has underway, notably the work the Leandro Commission has outlined to fundamentally and permanently improve low-wealth schools or the work the MyFutureNC Commission is doing to increase student educational attainment.

Building back better is going to require taking the time to crosswalk all those federal funding lines with state and local funding and the big plans, so that we don’t just recover – we soar.

Small business:

The same arguments hold true when it comes to the funding from ARP to small businesses. Nationally, an additional $50 billion will be available to help struggling bars, restaurants and live-event venues, to help businesses hold on to employees and to get more affordable loans.

I haven’t seen breakouts yet on how much of that funding will come to North Carolina, but I do know it will do more good if we take a careful look at how it can help move forward the new, thoughtful plan pulled together by the Small Business Policy Task Force led by the NC Rural Center. They’re looking at long-term strategies that will help our state’s smallest small businesses thrive.

Broadband:

Between the stimulus and another emergency appropriation, there’s also an additional $10 billion available nationally that could help with one of the projects IEI has been working with others on – finding ways to help more families bring broadband into their homes – to help them learn, work and get health care. The Emergency Connectivity Fund, paired with the existing Emergency Broadband Benefit, offers short term support to families to pay down subscription costs or get discounts on computers for their homes.

But those short-term discounts won’t necessarily solve long-term connectivity challenges unless communities synch them up with plans to expand broadband infrastructure (there’s another $10 billion in the ARP for that, which needs to be coordinated with existing and planned state infrastructure expansion) and develop long-term digital inclusion plans – strategies to ensure that broadband becomes part of every family’s home learning and working experience.

In all these cases, the easiest thing for our state and our communities to do will be to just take the ARP money and spend it. Building back better requires each of the teams that have developed statewide strategies to take an extended time out – a day or a week – with giant virtual whiteboards, to sketch out which parts of their plans they can check off their list, which parts state government, local government, businesses or families can help with, and what the new plan looks like now.

Then we can come back from the timeout, nail the first shot and get the bonus.