Should states and schools be able to use federal dollars originally aimed at afterschool and summer learning programs to add extra time to the school day? The Senate appropriations committee says yes—in fact, lawmakers there recently passed a bill that allows states to do just that.
Under the proposal, which has not yet been put forward in the U.S. House of Representatives, states could allow schools to use money from the $1.15 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers program to add "significant" time to the school schedule.
This idea isn't new. The Obama administration proposed the change a few years ago, and Senate lawmakers previously approved a bill that had similar language, but it never made it to the final package.
And states applying to the U.S. Department of Education for wiggle room from parts of the No Child Left Behind Act can elect to use 21st Century Community Learning dollars for extended day. (For a great look on how that's playing out, check out this great report from the Center for American Progress.)
Extended learning time, which can be a tricky policy to implement, since it can involve changes to transportation and teacher contracts, is a key feature of the waivers. Under the waivers, states are required to use the strategy with all of their so-called "Priority" schools—those that fall in the bottom 5 percent—even if they don't get other federal funding from the School Improvement Grant program, which is aimed at turning around low-performing schools.
The proposal has education advocates divided.
Jennifer Davis, a co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning, based in Boston, applauded the proposed change, saying it would allow school districts to choose the strategy that works well for them, whether that's afterschool or extended learning time. Here's a snippet from her statement:
High-quality expanded learning time schools give students more time for core academics and for the enrichment opportunities that ensure the well-rounded education that prepares them for success in the 21st century; they give teachers more time to collaborate, plan, train, and analyze and use student data to improve instruction; and they build strong partnerships with community organizations. With the changes to the law, local education leaders will be able to choose the strategy that best meets the needs of their students—an expansion of the school day, week, or year, afterschool or summer programming, or a combination of these strategies.
But Jodi Grant, the executive director of the Afterschool Alliance is worried that the language will lead states to divert funding to extended learning from afterschool and summer programs, which she says have been squeezed hard during the economic downturn.
"Afterschool programs are sorely underfunded," she said in an interview. Afterschool programs, she said, can be more geared towards students' interests and give them a chance to participate in programs in "a more carefree atmosphere" without worrying about grades. She's worried too, that if states place a heavy priority on funding extended learning time, rural afterschool programs could lose out. And she says other federal funding sources, such as SIG dollars, can help pay for adding time to the school day.
But even with extra dollars from federal sources, some schools are still struggling to implement the extended learning time requirements of the School Improvement Grants and other programs. For instance, one rural district in Idaho had to rearrange its schedule—including cutting time between classes—in order to meet the extended learning time requirement in SIG. The reason? The big federal turnaround grant didn't make up for a cut in state and local dollars—the district had gone to a four-day school week for most of its students.
The back-and-forth between the extended learning time and afterschool communities is a good example of what can happen when there are a number of policy ideas with strong political and local support on the table—but limited financial resources to make them a reality.