March 21, 2023

Filling the Gap to Assemble Supplemental Education Opportunities: A Bellwether Blog Q&A Series featuring Erin Martin at Youthprise

By Paul Beach

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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students are facing greater academic, social, and emotional challenges than ever before. Schools can’t address these needs on their own — and families need options. As families, caregivers, and schools look for ways to assemble a range of education options to meet students’ needs, Bellwether sat down with Filling the Gap cohort participants to discuss how assembling a more flexible educational ecosystem can be responsive to students’ needs. Stay tuned for more Q&As in this Bellwether blog series as March continues. To learn more about Filling the Gap and to read more in this Bellwether blog series, click here. Posts have been edited for clarity and content.  

Youthprise and its affiliate, Minnesota Afterschool Advance (MAA), provide low-income students and families in the North Star State with support, information, and resources to access after-school activities via the state’s K-12 Education Credit. I discussed the organization’s work, its reach in Minnesota, and more with MAA’s Director, Erin Martin.

Paul Beach (PB): Can you tell me about the work of MAA and its mission?

Erin Martin (EM): We’re focused on increasing equity with and for Minnesota’s Indigenous, low-income, and racially diverse youth. Half of MAA’s board is made up of young people who are engaged in a variety of capacities, including focus groups, advisory boards, and more. We strive to make sure the things we do are designed alongside youth, not just for or on their behalf. Youth engagement is huge in our everyday work, as is advocacy ownership, supporting economic opportunity, and building power and healing for the students and families we serve.

We collaborate with Youthprise and partner with the Venn Foundation to administer loans to families to enable them to take advantage of Minnesota’s K-12 Education Credit, a refundable tax credit that gives qualifying low-income families up to $1,000 per child to use toward a range of non-tuition educational expenses like tutoring, educational, and arts after-school programs. In 2022, MAA served 1,600 students from 200 cities, including families in 70 of the 80 counties statewide. Our work extends far beyond the Twin Cities.

PB: What’s the current education landscape like in Minnesota? How have families, students, and schools weathered the COVID-19 pandemic?

EM: Minnesotans and the education sector here are experiencing the same challenges as other states, particularly as we look to recover post-COVID and help students and families with lost learning, mental health, and well-being. Like countless states nationwide, Minnesota’s 2022 math and reading scores hit their lowest levels in decades on the National Assessment of Educational Progress; our high-poverty districts had higher learning loss than peers.

At MAA, we think of it as a “k-shaped” recovery: students from more affluent families with access to tutoring and resources are recovering at a faster rate than lower-income families’ children. Lower-income students are left behind in that way. That’s why we focus on equitable programs that help these families give children resources to grow and learn through out-of-school time (OST) programs and tutoring to prevent disparate learning outcomes.

PB: For those unfamiliar, what’s Minnesota’s K-12 Education Tax Credit and how exactly does it work?
It’s a complex tax credit, which is part of the reason why we work so closely with families to help them make sense of it and understand what they can access through it. In a nutshell, it’s one of the best tools in Minnesota to address disparate learning outcomes. Families earning up to $33,500 each year pay for 75% of after-school activities and can deduct up to $1,000 per child on their taxes. They can use these funds for computer hardware support, fine arts and performing arts, driver’s education, tutoring, other OST programs, and more.

In 2022, an overwhelming 88% of families we work with used the funding to pay for tutoring — that says a lot about where the need lies and how qualifying families are plugging into these kinds of services given the impact of the pandemic on lost learning. To us, it’s vital that the programs and services families access through the tax credit are high quality and delivered in culturally appropriate ways. That means a lot to the families we work with.

But it comes with some unique challenges — many qualifying families aren’t aware of the tax credit, have to use a nuanced and confusing calculator to determine if they even qualify, experience cash flow issues, and have trouble navigating a complex U.S. tax code and filing system to file claims and obtain refunds. What’s more, the income threshold is quite low and hasn’t been changed since its implementation in 1997. Think about what $33,500 could get you in 1997, and, especially adjusted for today’s inflation, what the same amount would buy you today.

Youthprise has been advocating for the state to 1) increase the income limit to $70,000 annually per family, calculated via adjusted gross income, with a phase-out range depending on the number of children a family has, and 2) to increase the maximum credit a family can claim. And we’re trying to index all of this to inflation.

PB: Navigating among a dizzying array of learning opportunities is often a big barrier for families and students. What are other critical barriers to access for families and students?
A few barriers immediately come to mind aside from the income threshold I mentioned earlier:

  • Determining qualifying instructors is a huge hurdle for families. The way the tax credit is structured and administered, instructors for qualifying activities need a bachelor’s degree or teaching license. But many longstanding, high-quality, trusted community providers don’t meet those criteria, which is confusing for families.
  • Cash flow issues are prevalent among the families we serve, so much so that it’s a huge reason why MAA even exists. Think about it: If you’re making $33,500 annually and have two kids, spending $2,000 is a major expense — one that can throw a real wrench in household income if a family has to wait one year to obtain a tax credit and refund. We advance the funds to pay for a qualifying activity up front. Then, through a system of Assignment Process, we help families direct money back on their end-of-year taxes into a loan fund that allows MAA to essentially “recycle” funds the following year for other families.
  • Understanding taxes is confusing and challenging for lots of people. And it’s high stakes with the tax credit’s income constraints, paperwork, and processes. We work hard to break down that information barrier and give families what they need to file accurately to receive a refund.

PB: How are Youthprise and MAA addressing those barriers? Is there a recent example of something working well that sticks out?
We have a few bright spots and lessons learned. One that comes to mind centers on tax preparation. A big assumption we initially made was that a vast network of free tax preparation support existed throughout Minnesota that families can tap into … which is partially true. There is a network, but it’s dwindling due to the pandemic and inflation. It’s tough. Families we work with struggle to understand the tax code and process of claiming a credit and often have a difficult time advocating for themselves, so things get missed.

We recently launched a pilot program with a local accounting firm providing tax support to qualifying families. The firm has experience with low-income families and guiding them through how to correctly claim the tax credit — and they speak Somali, which is a language many of our families prefer using. It’s gone a long way toward building trust among families and demystifying the process. It means more students can access the supports they need. We hope to build on the pilot program moving forward.

PB: What’s one piece of advice you’d give an organization supporting implementation of an education tax credit, either in Minnesota or elsewhere?
Education tax credits are a great way to help families and youth get access to services they need and put money into OST provider networks in the process. You can’t effectively do this work without strong relationships with oversight agencies. For MAA, that’s the state Departments of Revenue and Education. They’re vital to deciding how to interpret the state tax credit and how the program is administered. The relationships we’ve built with them are critical; we have a mutual understanding and interest in making the program successful for families and students.

PB: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to mention or put a finer point on?
I’d be remiss to not point out we have a fantastic team of community navigators at Youthprise and elsewhere who help families through the tax credit process and to register for programs. These networks are the backbone of our work and enable us to grow at scale.

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