WASHINGTON — After-school programs aimed at helping children from low-income families have survived changes at the White House, in Congress and even some attempts to pull funding when the Every Student Succeeds Act was adopted in 2015.
With the first confirmation vote for a new secretary of education scheduled for Wednesday, advocates and providers of out-of-school time activities are hopeful that the programs will continue without interruption, even if some tweaks are inevitable.
“It’s certainly something we’ve been following and we’re talking to folks on the Hill, but I don’t think anyone really knows for sure what to expect,” said Erik Peterson, vice president of policy for the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for programs that support children during OST. “ESSA is the law of the land, and I don’t see that changing. But the new secretary has a lot of levers at her disposal in terms of setting priorities and spending decisions.”
The Every Student Succeed Act, which replaced the No Child Left Behind program, included a definition of expanded school time, something that hadn’t been done in any previous legislation. The new law also continued funding for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which were established in 2002. The program, which had a $1.1 billion budget in 2016, is designed to improve literacy, provide training in arts, music and other activities and provide a safe environment for students.
President Donald Trump’s pick as new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, did not address after-school programs during her confirmation hearing earlier this month, although she has been a strong supporter of using public money to send students to private and charter schools. That stance and other positions, including her refusal at the hearing to insist that private schools accepting taxpayer money face the same academic standards, has some education advocates concerned.
If confirmed, as is widely expected, DeVos is not expected to have an immediate impact on the after- school programs, in large part because they are written into law. ESSA, sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support, specifically says all federal money given to states must supplement existing spending, and not replace money already being spent at the local level.
If confirmed, Devos will work with a Republican-controlled Congress, which has championed many of the voucher and charter school programs she has long supported. Any changes to spending and after-school programs, which are outlined and mandated by the 2015 law, would need to pass both House and Senate.
That possibility has those who advocate for more financial support for children during OST and providers of those services apprehensive about Devos and her potential to alter the Education Department over time.
“The amount of funding for after-school programs, and really all funding decisions, are up to Congress,” said Bob Tate of the National Education Association, which opposes Devos’ appointment. “So, she couldn’t pull money from individual programs herself, but administrations do seek to influence priorities, especially funding priorities. And that is just one of our concerns.
“The after-school provisions have been a well-established, if underfunded, part of public education,” Tate said. “I’m concerned about that, but at this point we’re focusing on all of the priorities and changes that could happen.”
In her home state of Michigan, Devos has run charter schools and is a strong advocate of using public education money to provide vouchers that would allow students to attend private schools. She reiterated those views during her confirmation hearing, and did not comment about supporting greater accountability measures for the private schools when pressed during the hearing.
While that record has concerned him, the Afterschool Alliance’s Peterson does see signs for hope.
“We do know that her charitable foundation [the Devos family foundation in Michigan] has supported local after-school programs — Boys and Girls Clubs, community training and those sort of things — so we are hopeful that she won’t do anything to existing funding,” Peterson said. “For years we’ve been seeing a shift from federal to state control, and we’ve been working closely with advocates at the state level anyway. We’ve see a lot of progress, and are pretty optimistic that this will continue.”