How the child tax credit can double as a lifeline for US education

How the child tax credit can double as a lifeline for US education
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It’s difficult for kids to go to school ready to learn when they’re hungry, battling toxic stress or experiencing any number of the devastating effects of poverty.  As a former teacher, I ask that Congress make the Child Tax Credit (CTC) benefit permanent. This will not only lift millions of children out of poverty but will also improve educational outcomes in schools across the country. 

When I was a teacher, I witnessed the devastating effects of poverty first-hand. Bright-eyed, excited kindergarteners entered my classroom at the beginning of each year with diverse gifts and limitless potential. They were excited to learn and eager to make new friends. But inevitably, for some students, the optimism waned. They’d get to school late, miss days or weeks of class due to their parents’ variable work schedules and housing instability and have trouble mastering content or catching up on homework. Despite the teachers' tireless efforts to make students feel included, many struggled and felt isolated as they spent time relearning lessons they had missed.    

Food insecurity was another big problem. Recent data from Feeding America states that 13 million children — one in every six kids —  do not know where they will get their next meal.  I saw that too in my classroom. Some students would arrive at school too hungry or exhausted to stay engaged. In the classroom, my fellow teachers and I regularly stuffed extra snacks in kids’ sticky backpacks before they left school on Friday. We feared that some kids, especially those facing economic hardships, wouldn’t have access to food over the weekend. Today, Congress has the power to change the lives of students nationwide.    

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In March, the American Rescue Plan established a one-year expansion of the CTC. This increased the CTC from $2,000 per child to $3,000 per child, with $600 in additional credit for children under 6. This works out to $300/month per child under the age of 6 and $250/month per child between 6 to 17. The new provision makes the credit fully refundable, and for the first time, permits families with very low to no income to receive the full benefit.   

A  study  published in 2020 by Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy estimates that this benefit would cut child poverty for Black children by 52 percent and for Latinx children by 41 percent.    

Many studies demonstrate the relationship between economic instability, stress and brain development. Poverty leads to toxic stress that physically alters children's brains, with long-lasting implications for every dimension of their lives, including education, health, and earnings.  

In contrast, economic stability correlates to positive outcomes and a greater likelihood of a stable and prosperous life.  Children make greater gains in school when they enter kindergarten ready to learn. School readiness means that children develop the cognitive and non-cognitive skills needed to succeed in kindergarten. These skills include everything from identifying numbers, shapes and colors to motor skills such as using scissors and even knowing one’s own name. Ideally, young children can learn these things through a combination of early learning and parent support, but high-quality early childcare and preschool are out of reach for many of the poorest families in our country.  

Parents need time and resources to cultivate the skills kids need to be ready to learn, but low incomes limit parents’ access to both. The CTC gives families additional money that they can use to pay for childcare, providing much-needed support and flexibility for parents who are low-wage workers with unstable and unpredictable schedules.    

School-based interventions are crucial and make a big difference for kids in need, but in the richest country in the world, we should be able to ensure that all kids and families have access to basic human necessities such as food and clean clothes. What’s more, the hard work of dedicated teachers and support staff is just one part of children’s lives. Their home life and pre-school years are formative; poverty and instability have an enduring impact on kids’ brain development and their school experience.   

If Congress votes to permanently expand the CTC, this initiative will lift millions of children out of poverty, stabilize family incomes and improve conditions that we know support brain development and reduce food insecurity — changes that will allow students the chance to show up to school buildings ready to learn. This will not only lift our economy but benefit our society writ large.   

Adzua Agyapon is director of Policy and Advocacy for the KIPP Foundation, a nonprofit network of college-preparatory public charter schools.