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Bipartisan Proposal Seeks to Save Federal After-School Program

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UPDATED

[Update (4:38 p.m., April 15): The committee approved the amendment on a voice vote Wednesday afternoon, along with a block of other amendments to Title IV of the ESEA reauthorization act.]

The federal government's after-school funding program would be preserved under a bipartisan amendment set to be introduced during hearings this week as the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions takes up the newest version of a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). 

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) program provides a little over $1 billion a year to states, which then distribute the funds to school districts and community organizations through a competitive grant process. Funds from CCLC serve nearly 1.7 million children and youth attending about 11,000 before- and after-school programs. 

The amendment not only salvages the program but also makes a number of changes that will "strengthen after-school and enrichment programs to help ensure students have a safe place for extracurricular activities," said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., one of the co-sponsors, in a press release. "It also allows working parents to stay at work with a better peace of mind, knowing their children are in a safe place."

Many of the changes are modeled after the After School for America's Children Act, a bill introduced in the last few Congressional sessions by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Their most recent draft, which we wrote about in February, was released just weeks after Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, proposed eliminating CCLC.

Sen. Alexander's plan, contained in his first draft of the ESEA reauthorization bill this year, would have consolidated CCLC with all the other non-academic programs and services in Title IV of ESEA, and roll them into a single block grant called the Safe and Healthy Students Act. 

He withdrew that version amid criticism from committee Democrats, but a compromise bill released last week, which we wrote about here, kept the single block grant.

One significant addition to CCLC made by the proposed amendment would open up the grants to school districts seeking to lengthen the school day or year.  Until a few years ago, the money was restricted to before- and after-school programs. In 2011, when the U.S. Department of Education allowed states to apply for waivers from some sections of the No Child Left Behind law, the application included a box the states could check if they wanted the flexibility to also use CCLC funds to add time to the regular school calendar.

The amendment would put that flexibility into ESEA and make it available for all states. The Washington.-based advocacy group, Afterschool Alliance, has been concerned about using CCLC funds for other purposes, especially since there are other federal programs that help support expanding school time, said Erik Peterson, the vice president for policy at the alliance.

But his organization helped craft the amendment because having a program, even one that's not all they hoped it would be, is better than the alternative.

"It truly reflects, like any good legislation, lots of peoples' priorities, ideas, and opinions to come through with one final package," said Peterson. "The nature of a compromise in any legislation is that you're never going to be 100 percent happy, so there are things that are give and take in this process."

The Boston-based National Center on Time and Learning, which provides training and planning support for districts adding time to the school day, also worked on the amendment. The organization's president, Jennifer Davis, acknowledged that there were challenges in balancing priorities, but said she's pleased with the outcome. 

"In the end, there was a recognition that the commitment to providing districts and states flexibility around how to best expand learning opportunities for students is the right way to go, and that is what ultimately has come through in this amendment," Davis said.

Other modifications were less controversial. The new version sets down in law additonal activities and services, many of which are already being done, on the list of allowable uses, including financial literacy for students, nutrition and health education, and programs in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., folded the career-technical education and college and career readiness provisions of her Afterschool and Workforce Readiness Act into the amendment as well.

The amendment also expands the criteria that can be used to measure the success of a program from students' standardized test scores to better attendance, higher grades in class, and completing "internships, apprenticeships, or work-based learning opportunities."

Of course, nothing happens to CCLC or changes in the program if Congress again fails to reauthorize ESEA, a process that's already eight years behind schedule. 

"Let's all knock on wood that Congress can actually go all the way and pass a full reauthorization proposal in the next couple of months," said Davis. 

Peterson agreed: "There are still a lot of hurdles to get there." 

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