By Holly Morehouse, executive director at Vermont Afterschool, Inc.
We started out the 2017-2018 Vermont Legislative Session with three clear goals in advocating for expanded learning opportunities:
During the past year we have seen many incremental successes but ultimately did not secure additional funding or formalize a decision-making structure to distribute future funds. Despite falling short of the ultimate goals, the work over the last year has built a network of legislative champions, increased awareness of the importance of Expanded Learning Opportunity funding, helped with the creation of a Vermont Youth Bill of Rights, and supported the creation of the VT9to26 Coalition. Here’s how it happened.
Developing afterschool champions
One of the most important legislative achievements this year is the number of legislators who now self-identify as champions for Expanded Learning Opportunity and afterschool. Whether converting skeptics to supporters or supporters to champions, a number of state legislators took it upon themselves to push for our priorities and are approaching 2018 with a greater appreciation for afterschool. Furthermore, the Senate Health and Welfare committee was so impressed with Vermont Afterschool’s testimony on prevention that they named afterschool and mentoring programs as the first thing Vermont should fund with an opioid tax.
Getting the right language in the right bills
The Expanded Learning Opportunity Working Group and accompanying funding may not have ultimately passed during the legislative session, but they both came very close. Despite opposition from the administration, the Expanded Learning Opportunity Working Group language eventually moved into the Miscellaneous Education bill after the House Education committee chose to support it. Even though the House and Senate conferees agreed to the Expanded Learning Opportunity language, last-minute issues in other parts of the bill stopped passage before adjournment, and we continued to work on this during the Special Session. Similarly, legislation in a miscellaneous revenue bill included funds for opioid prevention that would have gone to afterschool programs, and while the bill was reintroduced during the Special Session, it also failed to make it through the process before adjournment.
While the legislature did not include a specific appropriation for the Expanded Learning Opportunity Special Fund in this year’s budget, they did create other possible opportunities to find funding in the coming year. The budget approved by the legislature includes $2.5 million to be used for substance use disorder prevention efforts, and the Secretary of Human Services is charged with determining how to spend these funds. We are already working with the Department of Health to move this conversation forward.
Plugging into efforts to raise youth voice around substance use
We're now working with the Department of Health around a state plan for some of the money set aside by the legislature that we hope could go into the Expanded Learning Opportunity Fund.
The Department of Health has stepped forward as a new partner for the network in other ways, as well. Recognizing youth voice as an essential piece of substance use prevention, they are giving Vermont Afterschool, Inc. a grant of approximately $105,000 to support the work, about $70,000 of which will come from opioid crisis funds. The money will fund a youth voice coordinator at the network and support a Finnish-style participatory budgeting process: our youth council will collect proposals statewide from youth for projects that would increase opportunities for youth to: belong, get good at something, make decisions, and give back. Sounds like afterschool, doesn't it?
It's all about youth agency. Youth across Vermont will be invited to vote on the ideas they think will have the greatest impact, and the youth council will have $20,000 to allocate towards the selected proposals.
While we faced some disappointments and near-misses in this session, we also see new opportunities on the horizon and will continue to push for initiatives that help serve Vermont youth!
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