Hoping for some congressional help around budget time and beyond, national advocates for after-school programming announced the formation last month of after-school caucuses in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
The caucus will help “keep the issue of after-school in mind” during legislative debates, says Jen Rinehart, associate director of the Afterschool Alliance, the organization that put the caucus together.
She cites issues such as “health and wellness, the battle against obesity or the president’s high school reform initiative” and says, “we know that [caucus] members will make sure after-school is part of the equation when they come up in legislation.”
The caucus will be co-chaired in the Senate by Sens. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.), and in the House by Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
A caucus is an informal arrangement among members of Congress to express support for legislation dealing with certain areas of interest, such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus. They are created informally and members are not required to meet or vote a certain way.
“You literally just say, ‘This is our caucus,’ and you’ve launched it,” says MaryEllen McGuire, Dodd’s legislative director, who helped create the after-school caucus.
Caucus members quickly got a chance to demonstrate their priorities. President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2006 budget calls for $991 million for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the largest pot of federal money dedicated to after-school programs. That’s the same amount as the 2005 appropriation.
A fiscal 2006 budget resolution was passed in both chambers of Congress last month, but details of a final budget were not available at press time.
The new group joins about 12 congressional caucuses that deal largely with youth. In September, a coalition of nonprofits, called Voices for National Service, helped to launch the National Service Caucus.
“That kind of planted it in our thinking that this would be an interesting way to bring people together,” Rinehart says.
Capitol Hill staffers who work on youth issues say the gold standard for youth caucuses is the Congressional Adoption Coalition, established in 1985.
“It’s been fairly effective in terms of [fiscal] authorization efforts and mobilizing members,” says one former congressional staffer. But the staff member says the effect of even the strongest youth caucus will be relatively moderate. Youth issues are far down the priority list in Congress.
A current congressional staffer involved with the adoption caucus says it has never taken a position on legislation, and that its true purpose is “educating its own members and other congressmen.”
Building a stronger caucus typically involves one of two strategies: Members of Congress can pool office money to pay a full-time staff member to work on the caucus, or they can find an outside organization to support more expansive efforts. Neither is being done by the after-school caucus.
“There are a lot of caucuses that exist for a variety of reasons,” the adoption caucus staffer says. “The effectiveness of a caucus has most to do with the energy that people are able to put into it.”
Aside from the chairmen, the members of the after-school caucus are: Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Reps. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Dale Kildee (D-Mich.).
Contact: Afterschool Alliance (202) 371-1999.
After-school Surveys Show Underuse and Support
Nearly 10 million more children of working parents would participate in after-school programs if their parents knew such programs were available, according to an 18,000-household survey by the Afterschool Alliance.
The survey measured the participation in after-school programs by youth of various ages and regions who lived with either one or two working parents. The response shows that in households headed by single mothers, 19 percent of the children attend after-school programs, compared with 13 percent of children in households with single fathers and 12 percent in families with two working parents.
The alliance applied the findings to national population estimates to reach the 10 million estimate.
Jen Rinehart, associate director of the Afterschool Alliance, attributed the underutilization of after-school programs to a lack of communication and resources.
“There is definitely a lack of a coordinated system for letting parents know about the availability of programs,” she says. “But many communities have programs, and know about them, but they might cost too much, or serve a different age group, or have a sports focus that a particular family isn’t interested in.”
Most surprising to Rinehart was the disparity between after-school program usage in rural areas and the rest of the county. Among households where either both parents are working or the only parent is working, the survey found that 14 percent of children nationwide attend after-school programs, compared with 7 percent of rural children in such households.
“There are so many fewer kids participating in rural areas,” says Rinehart. “And there, parents are much more likely to choose what they choose because there are no other options.”
Support for more after-school programs in urban areas was also voiced last month in a national survey released by the Forum for Youth Investment. In a random nationwide poll of 1,028 adults, 81 percent agreed that “in a time of limited financial resources,” cities must make sure that after-school programs and other services remain available for youth.
Sixty-six percent said they would favor a measure, similar to one recently passed in California, to increase income taxes on high-income earners for the purpose of expanding services to children. The survey was conducted for the forum by EDK Associates and ORC. See also Report Roundup.