While the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) squeezes into a House-Senate conference committee with wildly disparate authorization levels, the fate of the nation's biggest pot of after-school funding hangs in the balance.
Youth advocates and their Capitol Hill supporters are divided over whether a state block grant pilot program will dilute or offer more flexibility for the popular
21st Century Community Learning Centers (CLC) program, which has been strictly federally controlled.
In another flashpoint of controversy, both houses included language in their reauthorizations paving the way for community-based organizations to directly receive federal dollars to provide Title I supplemental services and to tap into the CLC - moves that are a cornerstone of the Bush administration's faith-based initiative.
While high-stakes mandatory testing and school vouchers were respectively (and surprisingly) accepted and rejected with ease by both the House and the Senate in their ESEA bills last month, a battle erupted over the Straight A's state block grant pilot program. The plan consolidates several programs in states that sign a five-year agreement with the U.S. Department of Education that would commit them to boosting student achievement in exchange for greater freedom in using federal funds.
Contentiousness simmered inside and outside the Senate chambers after a strenuous effort by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) to pull the CLC out of the Straight A's pilot project. While one anonymous (and partisan) Straight A's critic claimed, "untold millions would be spent on football uniforms," Dodd's position was, "Block grants have the effect of not ensuring this assistance gets to the kids who need it."
"If that had won today, it would have put the whole bill in jeopardy," remarked Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) after the Senate defeated the amendment 51-47.
Frist's threat was backed up by other Republicans poised to hold up the bill on the issue of "flexibility." Said Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) at the time of the vote: "Taking out the after-school money would further deplete the amount of discretionary spending for states." Hutchinson said limiting the demonstration program to seven states was a "major concession" made by conservatives.
Created in 1997, the CLCs target rural and inner-city public schools with grants for school-based after-school activities that provide services such as tutoring, college prep instruction, technology education, drug and violence prevention counseling, recreation and assistance for youth with disabilities. Currently, community-based organizations (CBOs) must partner with (and apply through) school districts to run these programs (except for special congressional earmarks). President George Bush wants to make CBOs and faith-based organizations eligible to be independent grantees beginning next year. Bush is also pressing for state administration of the program and, accordingly, both the House and Senate bills have expanded eligibility requirements for CBOs.
That gets a loud huzzah from Bill Stanczykiewicz, executive director of the Indiana Youth Institute. "It opens up funds beyond the school district and provides more competition among community-based youth service organizations," he says. That's why Stanczykiewicz also has no problem with including the CLCs in the Straight A's block grant project. "It opens up the whole process."
Bush's Fiscal Year 2002 proposal funded the CLCs at $846 million (the same as this year), and proposed to merge it with the $533 million Safe and Drug-Free Schools program. But, according to a Republican Capitol Hill staffer, the administration backed off the merger request after finding out how popular the CLC initiative is. The Senate, for example, upped the president's request to $1.5 billion.
In a clear testament to the program's star status, Education Department spokeswoman Melinda Malico says that 2,780 applicants requested $1.9 billion in CLC grants this year - more than double the budget allocation. In June, 308 of those applicants were awarded new grants totaling $206 million.
"It is obviously a popular program. It should remain a solid program, undiluted by block grants," avers Rebecca Fleischauer, spokeswoman for the National Education Association, which is among several coalitions that have launched a full-court press on the conference committee to remove the CLC from the Straight A's block grant.
"It's the only federal program designed to spur states to come up with funds to create new after-school programs," says Judy Samuelson, acting executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, a coalition of public, private and nonprofit organizations steered by the C. S. Mott Foundation. "Now, states will simply use federal dollars and say, 'This is our share.' The block grant will chill funding from states and cities for much-needed programs."
Charter Schools' Windfall
Charter schools, character education, youth with disabilities and drug and violence prevention programs were among the many other items visited by Senate and House as they considered reauthorization of ESEA, originally passed in 1965:
Both bills allocate approximately $1 billion to support school-oriented law enforcement and drug and violence prevention programs. Funds would be supplied to purchase metal detectors, electronic locks and surveillance cameras, while law enforcement agencies and affiliated groups would be eligible for grants to conduct violence prevention programs in schools. Grants to localities would require a school to take punitive action against a student who brings a weapon to school, as well as maintain records on weapons possession incidents.
The charter school movement got a huge boost from the Senate when it approved $400 million for charter school construction - on a per pupil basis. "In hundreds of communities," notes a grateful Jon Schroeder, director of the St. Paul, Minn.-based Charter Friends National Network, "charter schools are now having to choose between paying day-to-day expenses in the classroom [or] putting a roof over their heads."
With some 550,000 students attending 2,150 facilities in 37 states, the nearly 10-year-old charter school movement serves a high proportion of minority youth while often struggling for adequate classrooms, gyms and computers.
"Our biggest issue is getting buildings," says Eve Brooks, executive director of the D.C.-based Public Charter School Center for Student Support Services. "If you can't get a building, you don't have stability and if you don't have that, you can't get a bank loan."
Schroeder sees the big problem facing charter school construction as "the consistency and standardization of authorizing agencies for oversight purposes." As of now, he says, chartering agencies vary from state to state and include local school districts, state boards of education and other authorizing agents.
Character education was addressed by the House, but not by the Senate. The House allotted $25 million to establish a character education resource and research center. Andrea Grenadier, spokeswoman for the D.C.-based Character Education Partnership, says she "has it on good authority" that there "will be provisions for character education" when the bill comes out of the conference committee.
An issue close to the heart of Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) found special favor in the (thanks to his switch from the GOP) Democrat-controlled Senate: inclusion of guaranteed $2.5 billion-a-year increases for special education. The Senate voted to shift funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the budget, locking in and allowing up to $181 billion for the program over the next 10 years.
The Senate bill included an amendment by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) which reauthorizes $60 million in Department of Justice grants for the creation of 1,200 new Boys & Girls Clubs across the country. The Hatch-Leahy amendment was drafted in response to President Bush's decision to eliminate the funding from his budget request.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the former powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, caused more than a stir on the Senate floor during the ESEA debate when he offered a proposal to deny federal funds to school districts that exclude Boy Scouts unites from meeting on their property because of the group's ban on homosexuals. The House had passed a similar amendment, introduced by Rep. Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.), by voice vote.
The Senate narrowly passed the Helms amendment, then, pushed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), also narrowly passed an amendment to give all youth groups "equal access" to school property.
Judy Samuelson, Acting Executive Director
Washington, DC 20035
Jon Schroeder, Director
Charter Friends National Network
1745 University Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55104
National Education Association
1201 16th St., NW
Washington, DC 20036