Budget Fight Takes Shape

Two competing visions for federal support for afterschool programs came into sharp focus in the last few days as President Obama and leaders of the House Appropriations Committee released their respective budget plans. One would cut $100 million in federal funding for afterschool programs; the other would increase funding by $100 million, although at the same time allowing non-afterschool programs to compete for 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative (21st CCLC) dollars.

The House Appropriations plan for afterschool is part of a proposed budget for the federal government for the remainder of the current fiscal year - FY2011 - and it is expected to come to the floor of the House for a vote in the next week or so. If it were applied over the course of a year, the bill's $100 million cut would mean 100,000 students across the country would lose their afterschool programs.

The President's budget proposal covers a different time period: FY2012, which starts on October 1 of this year. The President would boost current funding for the 21st CCLC by $100 million to $1.266 billion. However, his plan would do something else that could diminish the funds available for afterschool programs. In the past, 21st CCLC funds have been reserved exclusively for afterschool, before school and summer enrichment programs. The President proposes to permit states to make 21st CCLC grants for a host of additional programs as well, including summer school, time for teacher planning and professional development, and adding time to the traditional school day or year.

Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant was critical of the cuts proposed by the House Appropriations Committee. "While we recognize the imperative to cut spending," she said, "this proposal is short-sighted and harmful. At a time when more than 15 million children in the United States have no safe, supervised activities after the school day ends, and parents are struggling to hold on to their jobs and care for their children, we need to fund more afterschool programs, not close the ones we have. We will vigorously fight this proposed cut, with support from the strong majority of Americans who support afterschool programs. We intend to remind lawmakers that every quality afterschool program that closes means lost opportunities for students to learn, stress and hardship for working families, and jobs lost."

By contrast, Grant took a measure of encouragement from the President's proposal for the coming fiscal year, calling it "a badly needed and very welcome increase." She continued, "Quality afterschool programs keep children safe, inspire them to learn, and help working families. They are invaluable to communities, in high demand from parents, and popular with educators, business and community leaders because they work. But they also face profound funding challenges that have been greatly exacerbated by the recession."

Noting that "the long-term federal objective with respect to afterschool must be to grow federal support for programs, so that we can eventually meet the vast unmet demand for afterschool," Grant expressed concern about the President's plan to open 21st CCLC funds to other programs, declaring that they deserve their own funding streams. "21st CCLC funds should continue to be directed to afterschool, before school and summer programs that focus on hands-on engaged learning," she said, "and complementing and enhancing but not replicating the traditional school day. Funding should continue to support the partnerships between schools and community- and faith-based organizations that help our children improve academically, socially and behaviorally when their parents are at work. Every single dollar of federal support for afterschool programs makes a difference for children and families."

What's Next?
The two proposals frame two giant political battles that will likely last into autumn. The first battle will come quickly. The federal government is currently funded through March 4. Unless Congress passes and the President signs legislation to keep the government running, it will shut down after that and workers will be sent home, government checks will stop, and more. The House will likely pass its 2011 budget plan within the next few days, but the Senate will likely pass a separate funding bill of its own.

Differences in the House and Senate bills would then be addressed by a House-Senate conference committee charged with negotiating a compromise. If that committee succeeds in reaching an agreement, and both houses pass the resulting funding bill, it will go the President for signature or veto. If that process fails, Congress might attempt to pass a short-term funding bill that would continue current funding levels for some fixed period of time, during which it would work again toward a bill that both chambers can pass and the President can sign.

While all that is going on, the FY 2012 budget process will also get under way. The President's budget proposal is the starting point for that effort, but both houses of Congress will need to pass their own bills - in this case, separate appropriations bills for the major departments of the federal government, including an appropriations bill that funds the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. That process will likely run into late September.

During both processes - the FY 2011 budget debate and the FY 2012 debate to follow - afterschool advocates can play a vital role. "Now is the time to rally in defense of afterschool programs," Grant said. "We're going to need every voice and every supporter if we are to make the progress our children and families need and deserve."

This story originally appeared in the Afterschool Advocate (Vol. 12, Issue 2).

Click here to read the rest of this issue.