A Peek at President Bush’s Youth Policy

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The federal government's biggest after-school initiative dangles over the heads of youth-serving organizations like a pi-ata gorged with cash but hung too high to swat. Because only public schools can take a crack at the nearly $1 billion in 21st Century Community Learning Center funds, youth agencies must settle for whatever the schools toss to them as subcontracts.

But with President George Bush taking office last month, youth groups expect to get a whack at the pi-ata.

As people in the youth field wonder how the new president's youth policies will shape up  - Will he push harsher juvenile crime penalties? Expand abstinence education? Overhaul Head Start? - here's what might stand as Exhibit A: his pledge to let youth-serving agencies bid for the CLC grants, which total $845 million this year and appear likely to grow.

Congressional Republicans nearly pushed through that change last fall with the support of nonprofit youth-serving agencies, but were defeated by the education lobby. With Bush now in the White House, the GOP plans to push again and likes its chances.

"It is a top priority of Sen. Gregg and he will pursue it," says one congressional staffer, referring to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who sponsored last fall's effort.

"You will see some changes in the first year," predicts Robbie Callaway, vice president and Washington representative for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

But education lobbyists will vigorously fight such a move, and they wield more influence in Washington than do the advocates for youth-serving agencies, such as the 36-member National Collaboration for Youth.

"The money ought to go through the school district," says Steve Nousen, a National Education Association (NEA) lobbyist who helped defeat Gregg's effort. As for Bush's desire to include religious groups in the bidding as well, Nousen says, "We have a problem with faith-based organizations in terms of separation of church and state."

Religious group involvement makes some CBOs nervous for different reasons: They worry that faith-based groups will be exempted from certain government standards (involving personnel requirements and building codes, for instance), thus putting non-religious groups at a competitive disadvantage, says Richard Murphy, director of the Academy of Educational Development's Center for Youth Development and Policy.

"It's going to take an act of Solomon to figure out" how to make it work to everyone's satisfaction, says Judy Samuelson, a consultant for the Afterschool Alliance, coordinated by the Mott Foundation.

Whose Money Is It?

At stake is a pot of cash that has grown exponentially since starting as a $75,000 experiment in 1996. Just last month the Department of Education (DoE) awarded $213 million in CLC grants to 386 school districts. The CLCs are school-based, although some of the activities occur outside of schools.

While schools see the CLC as an education program to boost academic performance, youth-serving agencies see it as a youth development program that seeks to do what they've been doing for decades: provide enriching activities for youth. Schools, pressed to boost student achievement, want after-school programs to focus on academics; CBOs urge inclusion of other activities, like recreation and art. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and CLC grants now require schools to collaborate with community groups.

About two-thirds of CLC grant winners contract with CBOs for some services, says Robert Stonehill, the Education Department's CLC director. In those cases, he says, CBOs get about 20 percent of funds. In some schools, like in Duval County, Fla., local youth groups actually run the program.

But community groups say most schools give them only limited roles and that they're perfectly qualified to run the after-school programs themselves. (See "Youth Agencies Clamor to Stay After School," July/Aug. 1998). The youth groups have found friends among many Republicans, who see giving some of the grants to CBOs as expanding parental choice, and who are not generally aligned with the education lobby, as are the Democrats.

Any efforts to give CBOs direct access to those funds has been rejected by education lobbyists. "They view this as their money and by God, they're not going to share it with anybody," says one congressional staffer who has been involved in negotiations to open the grants.

The Bush Pledge

So when the Clinton administration proposed last year opening 10 percent of CLC funding to competitive bidding by community-based organizations (with concurrence from the local school district), the idea was defeated by objections from, among others, the NEA, the American Federation of Teachers, the National PTA and the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Then when Congress crafted the 2001 budget, Sen. Gregg proposed opening all CLC funding to competitive bidding by CBOs. The budget bill passed the Senate with that measure, but when House and Senate staffers met last fall to hammer out a compromise between their two versions, the White House, the DoE and the education lobby came down hard on cutting the Gregg provision.

Again the White House offered a 10 percent set-aside for CBOs. "They wouldn't even split" the difference and compromise at 50 percent, says a GOP staffer involved in the talks. With the presidential election approaching, Republicans decided to drop the matter for the time being; if Bush won, they'd get their way this year.

Bush had pledged to shift after-school funding to more non-school organizations. His campaign website said, "Unfortunately, federal after-school programs tend to discourage the participation of some of the most effective groups, including faith-based and other community organizations." The statement singled out the CLC, noting that "only schools are eligible to compete for funds."

Bush proposed to open all CLC funds to competitive bidding. "This will allow youth development groups, local charities, churches, synagogues, mosques and other community and faith-based organizations to compete for these federal funds on an equal footing with schools," his campaign website said.

The Religion Question

Now the odds are "absolutely" stronger for nonprofits and other community-based organizations to get an equal shot at the CLC, says Gordon Raley, the outgoing president of the National Collaboration for Youth.

Some after-school advocates, such as the National School-Age Care Alliance and the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST), are staying clear of the political fray, but say it shouldn't matter who gets the money; they just want more collaboration between schools and CBOs. "Opening it up to CBOs would allow an expansion of programs into Ys, community centers, Boys and Girls Clubs," says Joyce Shortt, director of the MOST after-school initiative at the NIOST. "Maintaining high-quality programs is what's essential, and that can be done whether the money goes to the school district or to community-based organizations."

One thing that unites the two sides is wariness about letting faith-based groups win the grants and run the programs. Faith-based organizations have been providing more government services in recent years, particularly since the charitable choice provision of the 1996 welfare reform explicitly allowed the federal government to pay such organizations to provide welfare services. As a candidate, Bush pledged to make even more use of faith-based organizations to carry out government services, including using religious groups to help teach and counsel children whose parents are in prison, and building on his record in Texas of using faith-based groups in prison.

"Some of the best after school people I've worked with have come out of a youth ministry background," says Linda Sisson, executive director of the National School-Age Care Alliance. "There could be a youth minister in a church collaborating with a school. But giving money to a church program operated in a church by a church would be problematic in terms of keeping those church and state separations."

Two likely vehicles for changing the CLC are the 2002 budget and this year's expected reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act. Sen. Gregg might also introduce an even bigger overhaul, raising questions about whether the CLC should even stay with the Education Department.

At the NEA, Nousen appears to leave the door open a bit for CBOs to get some grants directly: "We view the legislative process as one of give and take," he says. At issue is who will give, and how much. 

Patrick Boyle can be reached at pboyle@youthtoday.org.