WASHINGTON — What began as a lobbying gala quickly changed into a pep rally as key congressional leaders assured after-school advocates that their cherished programs would be funded again this year.
Dozens of advocates and youths from around the country packed into an empty hearings room at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill Wednesday evening to kick off the Afterschool Alliance’s annual event. The Alliance has been flying in advocates for years but the ritual has taken on greater urgency since President Donald Trump took office. For the last two years, he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have submitted budgets that would eliminate funding for after-school programs.
But a handful of legislative leaders, Republicans and Democrats, promised the cheering crowd that the programs would be safe. Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, kicked things off.
“This is just the sausage being made, but don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” he said, to raucous applause. “Don’t worry, it will be funded.”
The group heard similar messages from Reps. Lou Barletta, R-Pennsylvania; Bobby Scott, D-Virginia; David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Trump and DeVos have argued that the programs aren’t effective and would rather redirect federal funds to charter schools and to vouchers for private schools. Despite this, the Alliance finds itself on a bit of a roll. Last year, Republicans rejected Trump’s suggestion and gave after-school programs a record increase.
And organizers of this week’s fly-in say they’re focused on the long game.
“We have to constantly make the case why these programs are so important to kids, to parents and to communities,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of the Alliance. “We spend so much time and energy fighting against losing money for those programs, when what we really need is focus on getting funds for all of those kids who need these programs.”
While 2 million kids are served in after-school programs funded by federal dollars, Grant said, surveys have consistently shown that demand is 10 times greater than available slots. Advocates have stressed repeatedly that their goal to maintain bipartisan consensus on the importance of these programs, but acknowledge — quietly — that targets of their efforts tend to be more Republicans than Democrats.
It’s the Democrats’ traditional friendliness toward after-school programs that make it, ironically, even more important to cultivate Republicans, Grant said.
“I think our danger is when you have a president that keeps proposing to eliminate and you have an environment where the deficit just keeps growing, I think all of these programs are in danger,” she said.
Last fall, after years of discussions, the Alliance recruited and trained youths themselves to do the lobbying for the programs. Six “youth ambassadors” from all over the country worked the halls at the Senate and House office buildings today.
Ruben Balderas, 18, a senior at Walla Walla High School in Washington state, was on his first trip outside his home state. On Wednesday, at the Alliance rally, he admitted to feeling nervous. “I’m talking to some people who are really high up in government,” he said.
Kaleb Robertson, 18, another senior, from Green Bay, Wisconsin, was feeling a little more sanguine.
“If I say I got this, I got this,” Robertson said.
Early returns were that the youths might not have to do a lot of arm-twisting. “I’m sold,” Barletta told the crowd. A former mayor of a rural town in Pennsylvania, Barletta said he became a believer when a local cop showed a picture of third graders flashing gang signs. On a whim, he drove to a nearby school, and there he saw SHINE, Schools & Homes In Education, an after-school program that focuses on reading, math and science.
“I will always be your champion,” Barletta told the crowd.
Barletta told Youth Today that he saw SHINE as a model program that the federal government ought to be encouraging. “I’ve been trying to get Secretary DeVos to come see it,” he said. “When they see it, they’ve got to be believers.”