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Is there a "secret war" on after school at the federal level?

By Deborah Moore

I listened with interest during the recent National League of Cities webinar about the federal financing proposals to revise use of the 21st Century funds. During the webinar, the Afterschool Alliance and state representatives from after-school networks, including homegrown City of St. Paul Sprockets leaders, held a discussion on the revision of the current 21st Century funds policy and how these changes could affect after school programs here in our community.

My recap of the proposed policy: "How do we open as many doors as possible for schools to access the funds currently designated for after school programs?" My conclusion - if passed in any iteration being considered, community youth programs will have even less access to public support than they have now.

Harsh criticism I know, but it is hard not to get angry when the only specified source of federal funding through education for community youth programs is being compromised. In a Washington Post blog, Jodi Grant from the Afterschool Alliance gives her take on the diversion of afterschool policy by the current administration in "The secret war on afterschool programs."

What the policy revisions left me wondering was this: Where are the voices for the kids and practitioners in our community who know the distinct value of youth programs and can go head-to head with the politicos and expose how our children only lose more ground in this new scenario? Who needs to talk to whom? And how do we change the debate in this particular policy and the many other similar debates that pit after school and school day against each other?

I would argue that until we see after-school learning as distinct and of equal importance, any policy that connects the two will continually favor the education giant -- K-12 schools.
For me, school and after-school, in spite of the words shared in their titles, do not represent the same kind of learning. Each has distinct purposes that are important to the development and learning of our young people. There is a great deal of literature and research that supports those distinctions and it is faulty thinking to confuse the two as one and the same.

Formal education (aka school) has a tremendous amount of research, policy, resources, infrastructure and public support and yes, it still has enormous challenges. The nonformal learning environments (aka afterschool) also have a great deal of research. What after school does not have is significant federal support, state and federal infrastructure, consistent local, state and federal policy - and unsurprisingly it also has challenges.

But they are very different challenges. One of the biggest challenges in after school is access for youth who want and need it. The current 21st Century policy gives children access to programs that need it most. So why do we have to pit school against after school in our choices for federal funding by further blurring the lines? Placing these very different learning environments in the same policy makes it impossible not to do so.

The Washington Post has a blog and an article on the issue - I have posted my thoughts, what will you post? Last month, two of my colleagues here at Minnesota Extension spoke at a US Senate briefing on afterschool in rural communities and the benefits of 4-H. Who else do we need to talk to? Let's speak up about this! Perhaps if we blow up a blog with comments, Washington will notice that this is an issue we pay attention to in Minnesota.

-- Deborah Moore, former state educator, program quality

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  1. While I am not sure it is a war, it is certainly a major issue and problem for youth programs. Understanding the unique value of non-formal and informal learning in the lives of young people is important. While that value can be manifest in partnership with schools, putting the control and funds through schools is a losing strategy in most places. Dancing with the 800 pound education gorilla means more than some broken toes in most cases. It can mean the real lose of opportunities for young people.
    Making afterschool all about success in school is both useful and insufficient. We need to do more in expanding learning opportunities than expand school hours or we will have missed a the key point. The greatest inequalities in learning opportunities likely exist outside the school day and contribute to the various learning, achievement and opportunity gaps that are a major problem in America.
    A newer front in this battle is that of getting critical outcomes beyond test scores to be valued by our communities and invested in by our policy makers. This means making socio-emotional or what are sometimes called non-cognitive factors in success more visible and valued. I believe this is a front where being proactive in promoting these outcomes in both school and out of school environments opens new possibilities and a leveler, less formal education dominated playing field. It is on this front rather than how to expand time that I am choosing to do battle. But that means we as a field in youth work need to be clearer about these outcomes and our contributions to them. And that we can not blame on schools.
    Thnaks for challenging us to respond!

  2. This war has been in the making for over a decade and has been a slow and steady "take over" of after school! So, yes, Deborah, you nailed it I do believe. The most recent legislation on the table actually considers moving the 21st CC $$ into school budgets removing the direct bidding from CBOs in the process.
    Fortunately for us most practitioners on the ground do what is right for kids regardless of their mandate. Unfortunately for us they continue to feel the squeeze in doing so. With no systemic support people get burned out and leave the field. New folks who enter the field only know the ways things are now so they have no comparison. They just see after-school as academic tutoring or prep.
    Lots of work to do indeed. Thanks for this stimulating post!

  3. Dana,
    My thanks for adding depth to why this feels like a war and the multitude of affects it has on our communities. There are not enough voices from those it impacts to describe the true costs. My gratitude for surfacing the honor we both know youth workers will show in the face of even less, when needs are so great. I absolutely take up the challenge to advocate for spaces where youth and youth workers determine what and how they want to learn. My part may be to work with practitioners to deeply articulate their purpose in the work and never let that go. It is knowing our purpose that keeps many of us "seasoned" youth workers steady in the face of what surrounds us. I hope others find a part to play.