21st Century Learning Centers Get Budget Reprieve Until September

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Michael Bentley

WASHINGTON — Millions of low-income kids just got a guarantee they will be able to spend their summers learning in a safe, supportive environment. And the cadre of educators and counselors who work to keep them busy, healthy and out of trouble now know they’ll have the money to continue.

The federal budget deal hammered out in Congress this week preserves funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers and actually increases government spending by $25 million. The vote comes less than six weeks after President Donald Trump released a budget proposal that killed the out-of-school time program’s budget entirely.

The president’s March proposal sparked fear among educators, juvenile justice counselors and others who provide services for lower-income youth and their families. They responded by contacting representatives of both parties who have long supported the program, which for nearly two decades has provided training in the arts and health issues, traditional education and drug counseling, among other services.

In April, hundreds of national and state organizations that provide services through the 21st Century program sent a letter to leaders of the House and the Senate from both parties, outlining the program’s importance and asking that it be preserved.

The efforts worked even better than many advocates had hoped.

“I thought it was interesting that Congress provided a slight increase, because I thought they might chip away at that a bit,” said John Sciamanna, vice president for policy at the Child Welfare League of America. “Certainly there have been a lot of signals that Republicans don’t like a lot of things that were said [in the president’s budget proposal] about 21st Century Learning, and this shows there is something to that.”

While this week’s budget compromise — which is expected to become final after both houses of Congress vote later this week — saves the program until at least Sept. 30, there is no guarantee after that. Today Trump suggested that a government shutdown in support of his budget priorities may be a “good” solution to the country’s budget battles.

Sciamanna said he expects the president will submit a complete, line-item budget sometime in the next few weeks. Trump, who used his Twitter account to criticize the budget compromise, could again call for the program to be abolished.

But for now, 21st Century’s budget will jump to $1.19 billion for fiscal year 2017, and serve about 1.6 million families, according to a review of the pending budget and a 2016 analysis by the Afterschool Alliance.

In his March budget proposal, Trump and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, argued that the program had been ineffective. That assertion was contradicted by providers, families, members of Congress and a detailed 2016 study by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Supporters of 21st Century and service providers said federal funding is crucial to making after-school programs work, and can not be replaced by foundations. Complicating matters is the fact that programs serving the elderly, food and nutrition programs and other services for the poor or those with health needs also face steep cuts.

State and local governments will be asked to fill part of the void, but many don’t have the money needed.

“We are nowhere near meeting the demand for after-school opportunities now, so if the worst happens, and the funding isn’t renewed, there is no way to replace that,” said Ellie Mitchell, executive director of Maryland Out of School Time, in a recent interview. “If you name a public service — whether it is feeding people, dealing with the elderly or whatever — so many are on the chopping block it takes your breath away.

“There is no way that local tax dollars or private foundations will ever be able to fill that need,” Mitchell said.

This story has been updated.