After-School Initiative Drums Up Bipartisan Support in Washington

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If there's one thing the White House and Republicans in Congress can agree on, it's that after-school education is a top priority this year.

For the past three years, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative has been the fastest-growing discretionary education program in the federal budget. This year, President Clinton is proposing another whopping increase--from $200 million to $600 million--for a program that received a mere $1 million in fiscal 1997.

It seems only natural that both Mr. Clinton and the GOP would back the initiative: It gives at-risk students a few more crucial hours each week to learn the academic basics--and during the after-school and early-evening hours when most crimes by juveniles are committed.

"With quality after-school [programs], parents and educators will be given the tools they need to succeed, students learn their lesson in the schoolhouse, not on the street, and youth crime and victimization plummet," Mr. Clinton said this month during a White House event held to preview his education agenda.

Lawmakers soon will get a chance to size up the 21st Century program, which is part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The ESEA, the flagship federal program in K-12 education, is up for congressional reauthorization this year.

Ironically, the White House--not for the first time--has latched on to a political vehicle first drafted by Republicans: in this case, then-Rep. Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin and Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, now the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Republican Roots

The two lawmakers' original language in the 1994 Improving America's Schools Act, the most recent revision of the ESEA, laid the groundwork for a much broader network of community-based programs within school facilities, such as senior citizens' and literacy programs.

Mr. Clinton's idea is more narrowly focused on the after-school segment of the original program: Today, the grant money targets rural and inner-city schools seeking to pay for academically based after-school programs in existing school facilities. The president wants to further narrow the focus to fund schools that come up with ways to use such efforts to end social promotions of academically unready students.

"It's very well done politically--[Mr. Clinton] has it both ways," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group, and a former Democratic aide to the House education committee. "Clinton can sound like a liberal by promoting extra care and extra educational services for poor children, and, on the conservative side, it can help end social promotion and cut down on juvenile crime."

And school district administrators appear thrilled. "I don't believe this is trendy--it's critical," said Valorie MacInnis, the director of grants for the 13,300-student Roanoke, Va., schools. She recently attended an Education Department forum on the program to learn how to write a better grant application.

The public seems to agree with Ms. MacInnis. Last year, 90 percent of Americans in a poll commissioned by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation of Flint, Mich., said children should have access to after-school programs. This month, the Education Department and the Mott Foundation began co-hosting regional forums to help districts apply for the grants.

Funding for the program was initially authorized for funding of up to $20 million in 1994, far more than it received when it finally received its first appropriation of $1 million in fiscal 1997. That figure jumped dramatically, to $40 million in fiscal 1998, then to $200 million this fiscal year.

Still, those increases do not meet the demands of school districts. Last year, the Education Department received nearly 2,000 applications for the 1998 allocation, and only one in 20 applicants received a share of the pie.

Despite the current increase, department coordinators speculate that they may have to turn down some good applications this year. "We're really excited about the new money, because the demand is so huge," said Adriana A. de Kanter, the department's deputy director for planning and evaluation services.

One of the fiscal 1998 grantees was the 48,000-student North East Independent School District in San Antonio, where middle school staff members provide after-school tutoring, educational field trips, and counseling to about 100 of the poor, mostly immigrant students, according to grant coordinator Lynda Haile.

More Than Academics

Since the program started last year with a $594,000 grant, serious juvenile crimes and such misdemeanors as spray-painting graffiti have been reduced in the surrounding communities, and grades on report cards have improved, Ms. Haile said. "Working beyond the traditional school day, we can give youngsters the success they wouldn't have had otherwise," she said.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, remain supportive of such initiatives, but some worry that the program will veer further from its original intent. The 21st Century effort has the support of House Republicans on the Education and the Workforce Committee--as long as it retains a strong educational component and doesn't become federally financed child care, said Jay Diskey, a spokesman for the committee's GOP members.

"The Clinton administration is very skilled and adept about proposing these things, but is not very skilled and adept about doing the housework and administration on these programs," he maintained.

Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee generally support the program, spokeswoman Elizabeth Morra said. But like many other lawmakers and lobbyists, they are awaiting President Clinton's actual budget proposal for fiscal 2000, she said. Mr. Clinton's plan, slated for release Feb. 1, will show what cuts he plans to make to offset any spending increases for after-school and other programs.

The focus of after-school programs remains an issue. Such programs will not be effective for all children if they merely overload academics on students who are already tired of sitting in a classroom all day, argued Sally N. McConnell, the director of government relations for the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va.

In addition, she said, the 21st Century initiative should not be too structured by the federal government: "Each school is unique, and each community is unique."

Vol. 18, Issue 19, Pages 1, 24

Published in Print: January 20, 1999, as After-School Initiative Drums Up Bipartisan Support in Washington
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