Congress' Chance to Help Students Get 21st Century Skills

At the local level, it has become increasingly clear that as states, districts, and schools are raising standards and increasing their focus on graduating students that are prepared for college and careers, there is a need to build capacity within the education system. Many districts and schools have already begun to address this need by partnering with effective community-based partners, and investing in expanded learning opportunities; programs that keep students engaged and excited about learning while improving academic achievement. While local efforts to improve education have been effective, systemic change has been difficult because of feederal inaction. That, however, may be changing.

Congress is now moving forward on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Representative Kline, Chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, introduced the Student Success Act (H.R. 5) and it was brought to the House floor on July 18th. The bill passed with 221 votes, with all Democrats and 12 Republicans voting against the bill. While we are supportive of the strong partnership language that requires local education agencies to partner with community-based organizations, business or nongovernmental entities under the Local Academic Flexibility Grant, we are disheartened that the bill eliminates the 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CCLC) program that would provide direct funding for much needed and expanded learning programs. Senior Democratic member, Representative George Miller, offered a substitute amendment that strengthens the 21st CCLC program by including provisions that require school-community partnerships and allow grant renewals for the programs that are innovative and demonstrating results. Unfortunately, this amendment failed by a vote of 193-233.

Despite the House approach to the 21st CCLC program, we are encouraged by the movement on ESEA reauthorization on the Senate side. Senator Harkin, Chairman of the Health, Education, Pensions and Labor (HELP) committee introduced, marked up, and passed S. 1094, the Strengthening America's Schools Act of 2013 through Committee. This bill provides support for stronger partnerships and local options through the reauthorization and improvement of the 21st CCLC program. This revamped program:

Ensures strong partnerships. The legislation requires that local educational agencies partner with community based organizations in order to receive funding. Likewise, community based organizations that wish to receive funding must partner with local educational agencies.

Provides local options. The legislation also provides local communities with the full authority, without federal preference or direction, to make their own decisions about whether to use 21st CCLC for before school, after school, summer learning programs and/or expanded-day and -year programs. This flexibility ensures that local school districts and schools are providing the services that meet the needs of their students.

The Strengthening America's Schools Act is a definite step forward for education policy but there is still room for improvement. For example, the 21st CCLC program should better recognize the role of intermediaries to support systems-building efforts. Districts and community partners need co-management capacity in order to leverage the strengths of external partners and resources. Program providers often lack training, systems, resources and strategies to succeed. Intermediaries help schools and nonprofits excel at direct student services, while providing the wrap-around services needed to build capacity, sustain and grow scalable programs, and get results.

The legislation should also ensure that funds from the 21st CCLC program are used to provide direct services to students. We are supportive of broadening the 21st CCLC program to include a range of expanded learning time approaches, but we have concerns about funds being used to "comprehensively redesign the school schedule for all students in the school." It does not make sense to pay for a whole school turnaround effort with 21st CCLC funds that should be used to provide students with additional time to participate in academic and enrichment activities that so many students critically need.

Congress has an opportunity to strengthen and expand successful local practices through the reauthorization of ESEA. My colleagues and I in the Collaborative for Building After School Systems hope that, as Congress moves forward, both Chambers and sides of the aisle can work together to maintain and strengthen programs like 21st CCLC that we know can effectively support students to be college- and career-ready.