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21st Century Centers Bill Has Advocates Worried

A Senate subcommittee added $100 million to the proposed fiscal 2011 appropriation for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program yesterday. This sounds good, right? But not so fast, as after-school advocates say the addition may actually take money away from after-school programs and shift those dollars to efforts to support longer school days and years.

Calling the subcommittee vote a "a grave and potentially costly error," Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant asserted in a statement released today:

"At a time when 15 million children and youth in this country have no safe, supervised activities after the school days ends, we need to protect funding for after-school and summer learning programs—not divert it."

In a nutshell, here's what has Grant and the alliance concerned. On Tuesday, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee approved a $169 billion discretionary spending bill for education, health and human services, and labor. Included in the bill is nearly $1.3 billion for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, a proposed $100 million increase from the program's current budget.

Linked to the spending boost, however, is a new policy perspective. As the Senate Appropriations Committee put it: "The bill includes a change allowing grants for [the] 21st century community learning centers program to be used to help communities establish or expand extended learning time that includes both academic instruction and enrichment opportunities, and to support a more systemic restructuring of the school year." This has not been the case to date for the program, which has focused on after-school initiatives.

Not everyone sees the possible change as a setback. The Center for American Progress Action Fund and the National Center on Time & Learning applauded the subcommittee's vote as a means "to expand learning and enrichment opportunities." The groups praised the greater flexibility the bill would allow.

But, in an interview, Grant said the policy shift in the bill left her group "shell-shocked." She added: "This is a major, major policy change." She said the alliance is urging its members to contact appropriators to advocate for after-school efforts. Well-done after-school initiatives are critical, she said, and, efforts to expand school days and years should be funded through broader school reform legislation and not at the expense of "what's working" now.

The full appropriations committee is due to vote on the bill Thursday.

Funding for the learning-centers program has been a concern for some time. In May, 45 mayors wrote Congress asking that the program be continued without cuts or expanded. And in April, advocates were worried about the Obama administration's plan to level-fund the program while adding new spending priorities within it.

But now there appears to be more money but less clarity as to its targeting of after-school learning. Stay tuned to see what happens next on Capitol Hill.

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