Natural Allies: Youth Agencies & Charter Schools

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To hear the nation's leading Democratic and Republican politicians tell it during the recent federal budget debate, the most urgent issues facing the nation's youth are expanding the use of school vouchers (the GOP choice) or adding 100,000 federally financed teachers to the public schools (championed by President Clinton, congressional Democrats and the two teachers' unions).

But while politicians wrangle over these sound bite-friendly issues, something of far more import - the explosive growth of charter schools that now enroll 350,000 students - is galloping to the rescue of many of the nation's most disadvantaged teens.

As recently illustrated in Decatur, Ill., public schools have never been reluctant to heave off their hardest-to-serve students while holding on to the tax revenue intended to educate them. Last year zero tolerance-crazed public schools suspended more than 3 million students (no one bothers to count the number expelled), while another half million just dropped out. The perpetual challenge for community-based, youth-serving agencies left by default to aid these teens isn't serving them, but finding even minimal funds. For 40 years, dedicated community-based organizations in most urban areas have struggled to serve these youth through a patchwork of street academies and other second-chance efforts. The kids were hardcore but the funds decidedly softcore, always at the mercy of school districts indifferent or flat out hostile to their efforts.

Now, thanks to charter schools - none more than seven years old, and  supported by 73 percent of the public - the financing of services to the hardest-to-reach-and-serve teens is undergoing a rapid transformation.

Consider Arizona, where a free market in education has launched 350 charter schools in the past five years, including programs in Phoenix run by the Florence Crittenton Services for teen parents and job readiness-focused Call-a-Teen, and in Tucson, by the Urban League.

"The education bureaucracy is a national problem, requiring a national response," says Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The GOP presidential frontrunner, along with every other serious contender for the White House (except Vice President Al Gore) recognizes that the traditional top tier players in national education and youth policymaking have become the dead hand on the tiller. This "education lobby" has stymied federal policy overhauls that would allow tens of thousands of nonprofits and public agencies, such as recreation departments and 4-Hs, to serve more kids.

One example is the virtual monopolizing by school districts of federal after-school funds dispensed by the Department of Education's 21st Century Community Learning Centers. It's slated to get $450 million this year. Backed - or led by the nose - by the two teachers' unions, the Clinton-Gore White House has blocked even modest Department of Education attempts to allow CBOs to apply directly for the funds, even if the local school district isn't applying.

Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley has belatedly seen the light. Speaking in Brooklyn's Concord Baptist Church, he proposed "$1 billion in grants to nonprofits" to operate comprehensive after-school-to-midnight youth programs modeled on the Beacon Schools of New York City. Bradley's proposed billion dollars would, he maintains, fund 2,000 or more youth centers, serving 5.6 million youth and their families.

At these youth centers, says Bradley, "youth workers will help students with homework and run sports and recreation programs." He listed "YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, settlement houses and faith-based organizations and others" as recipients.

This sounds suspiciously like the 1995 Youth Development Community Block Grant (YDCBG) pushed mostly by congressional Republicans, which Sen. Bradley - then still laboring under the liberal Democratic illusion that, regardless of the task at hand, if there's real money on offer, just give it to the school districts - voted against.

Much of the funds for the YDCBG would have come from the now $611 million per year Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Program. By defeating the YDCBG and leaving schools alone responsible for the task of preventing school violence, the national education lobby unwittingly set the stage of the post-Columbine plunge in voter confidence in - and rise in voter anxiety about - public schools. Moving adroitly into this powerful wedge issue is charter school supporter Gov. Bush.

He has proposed mandatory federal rules for handling student disciplinary policies as a precondition to a school district receiving any Safe and Drug-free School money, a policy change which will make the financing of second-chance charter schools even easier for youth-serving agencies. Pretty much any way you read the campaign tea leaves, prospects are excellent over the next decade for financing services for otherwise out-of-school youth with education dollars. And if you can read opportunity into this, thank a teachers' union.