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Swords Drawn on 21st Century Community Learning Centers?

A group of senators proposed a reauthorization plan yesterday for the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grant program that would enhance application protocol and accountability requirements for after-school, before school, and summer programs.

The Afterschool for America's Children Act, proposed by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), places emphasis on improving out-of-school time programs through staff training, community partnerships, school alignment, and tracking of student progress. Boxer, chair of the Senate Afterschool Caucus, has been a longtime advocate for after-school programs.

The 21st CCLC funding program was established to help states create out-of-school time and community programs in their localities. States are allocated formula grants from the federal government, and then re-allocate funds to entities like districts and community organizations through a competitive grant process.

(A bill crafted recently in the U.S House of Representatives would allow states flexbility in using other federal funding streams as part of their 21st CCLC grants, if passed.)

Yesterday's proposed legislation rides on the coattails of another recently proposed bill that would add and prioritize the 21st CCLC funding applications from expanded learning time programs, or schools that would add at least 300 hours to the year for added academic, enrichment, and planning time to help close the achievement gap.

The Improving Student Achievement and Engagement through Expanded Learning Time Act would mandate states use 95 percent of their 21st CCLC funding to award sub-grants to districts that could be allocated as one-year planning grants solely for expanded learning time programs and renewable multi-year grants to create expanded learning time or out-of-school time programs.

"In today's global economy, we cannot allow our students to fall behind the curve and lose out on the jobs of the future," said Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), one of the sponsors of the Improving Student Achievement and Engagement through Expanded Learning Time Act. "Expanded learning time is a key way to close the achievement gap and improve student performance, particularly in our nation's lowest-performing schools."

Competition is already steep for 21st CCLC funding, but after $12.3 million in cuts made this past spring (equaling about 12,000 student slots in programs), that competition may get even steeper, particularly if expanded learning time programs are prioritized and included in the mix, according to the Afterschool Alliance.

"For every school that extends its school day under this legislation, it is estimated that six after-school programs will have to close their doors," the Alliance reports. "In tight budgetary times, this means replacing more cost efficient after-school programs with a more expensive new and untested model. The result will be more children unsupervised afterschool and fewer communities served."

A spokesman for Sen. Bernie Sander's (I-Vt.), another sponsor of the Improving Student Achievement and Engagement through Expanded Learning Time Act, said the goal is not to kick after-school programs to the curb, but to incentivize schools to implement expanded learning time that would benefit all students. While these applications would be prioritized under the bill, states would not be required to give grants only to ELT programs and should instead award grants to the best applicants.

"Expanded Learning Time schools provide all students within that school with the opportunity to participate in a variety of programs that support their academic achievement and improve student engagement," said Sanders' aide. "In a time when schools across the country are being forced to make cuts, the Expanded Learning Time model creates a more sustainable and thoughtful restructuring of the school day that connects and broadens learning through strong partnerships between schools and community-based organization."

As I mentioned a few months ago, there is other federal legislation on the table that would create a competitive grant program for states and districts that want to implement expanded learning time models in their schools. The TIME Act was recently endorsed by over 40 organizations and think tanks that support expanded learning.

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