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Senators Boxer and Murkowski Move to Protect Federal After-School Grants

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In a bipartisan effort, U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced a bill aimed at strengthening and raising the profile of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) program in order to protect the federal government's only fund designated for after-school programs.

Their legislation, known as the After-School for America's Children Act, came two weeks after Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, released his draft reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that proposes eliminating the 21st CCLC and all other nonacademic programs and services in Title IV of the No Child Left Behind Act. They would be consolidated to create a single $1.6 billion block grant called the Safe and Healthy Students program.

As my colleague Alyson Klein noted in her January 16 Politics K-12 blog, other items compressed under Alexander's plan include mental health counseling, drug and violence prevention, Promise Neighborhoods, art, music, mentoring, tutoring, and programs promoting physical activity and good nutrition.  With a budget of nearly $1.2 billion, the 21st CCLC is by far the largest program that would lose its designated pot of money.

Sens. Boxer and Murkowski, along with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced similar legislation in support of after-school programs in 2013 and 2011.  While there are no specifics in the new bill so far, it would generally provide assistance for struggling programs and improve communication between schools and their local community partners to ensure that the after-school curriculum is aligned with what students are learning during the day.  

Sen. Boxer's staff members acknowledged that the latest bill is intended as a signal that she opposes any effort to collapse the programs into a single block grant.

After-school advocacy groups quickly launched additional campaigns to fight the proposal.  Within a few days, the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance launched an action alert containing sample letters to send to Senate  HELP committee members along with a fact sheet.  Critics of the Title IV reauthorization proposal also took to the Twitterverse with a #Save21st hashtag.

In opening remarks on the reauthorization bill at the January 13 HELP committee meeting, which can be viewed here, Sen. Alexander called his reauthorization proposal "the chairman's working draft" and described it as a place to start the discussion.  While pledging to work toward compromise to win bipartisan support, he also acknowledged the real "differences of opinion we [Republicans and Democrats] have on four or five major areas."  

An aide to the senator said the change to a block grant reflects the long-held belief that decisions on how to spend federal education funds should be left to states and local school districts.

The reauthorization bill is based on the philosophy that "the federal government should impose very little accountability requirements and the secretary [of the Department of Education] should be restricted in what states and local districts do," said Joel Packer, a principal at the Raben Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy firm.

In addition to consolidating all the student services programs, Packer said another key issue is that Sen. Alexander's proposal also gives states and school districts explicit authority to move any or all of their Title IV grant money back and forth with Title II of ESEA, which provides funds for teacher and administrator professional development.  Essentially, a district could spend all or none of the money on after-school programs.

"Now is the time to step up support for students during the time when they are not supported by school or family, the hours after school when 11.3 million children are unsupervised, and juvenile crime and other inappropriate activities peak," wrote a coalition of after-school proponents in a letter sent last week to members of the HELP committee. "Eliminating the dedicated 21st CCLC funding stream would mean most, if not all, of the funding currently supporting 1.6 million students in after-school and summer programs is at risk of being redirected to the other purposes."  The letter was signed by 266 community and national organizations from A World Fit for Kids!, which provides after-school programming for low-income children in the Los Angeles Unified School District, to the YMCA of the USA, whose after-school programs serve more than 9,000 students a year.

For every child attending a high-quality, after-school program, two more would be enrolled if one were accessible and affordable, according to America After 3PM, a report by the Afterschool Alliance examining supply, demand, and quality of after-school programs that you can read more about in our blog from last October

Sen. Alexander has indicated that he wants the HELP committee to vote on a reauthorization measure by the end of the month. Democrats would need to pick up support from two Republicans to block the consolidation. If the GOP version succeeds, it faces another hurdle in President Obama.  His budget proposal for 2016, released earlier this week, allocates $1.15 million to continue the 21st Century Community Learning Centers.
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