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Victories for STEM education in recent legislative activity

By Anita Krishnamurthi

As the legislative season winds down, several wins for afterschool STEM education have emerged. Most recently, on July 13-14 the House Appropriations Committee marked up the fiscal year 2017 Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) funding bill. The bill maintains funding for 21st CCLC at the current level of $1.16 billion, which is very good news! As you might recall, the Senate version of the bill cut afterschool by $117 million, in line with President Obama's budget request.

Informal STEM education has bright outlook in new bills

STEM is increasingly an integral part of afterschool programs, so the House's proposed funding level for 21st CCLC will ensure that millions of children will continue to have access to STEM learning opportunities. The House education spending bill also provides $1 billion for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program, the new block grant in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Although this is lower than the authorized level of $1.65 billion, the House appropriation puts the funding at $700 million over the Senate LHHS bill and $500 million above the President’s budget request. STEM education advocates are breathing a collective sigh of relief, as this grant was designed to be a formula grant for districts to use toward a wide range of activities, including STEM programing (with very supportive language about partnerships with afterschool programs), arts education and counseling services. House appropriators have indicated their strong support for the initiative with this funding level, but the final outcome is far from guaranteed as the Senate and House numbers will have to be reconciled eventually.

On July 7, 2016, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held a full committee markup of H.R. 5587, The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Actwhich you may know better as the Perkins CTE bill. The update includes changes that recognize the role of afterschool and summer programs in preparing young people for the workforce, and explicitly includes community-based organizations as eligible entities for funding. The bill has provisions for states to award grants that provide “support for programs and activities that increase access, student engagement, and success in STEM fields (including computer science), especially for underrepresented groups.” This provision could be very beneficial for afterschool STEM programs, especially when combined with the new expanded eligibility for starting these activities in the 5th grade (compared to the previous limit of 7th grade). 

Finally, the Senate Commerce Committee marked up S. 3084, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which encompasses plan to reauthorize the America COMPETES Actin late June. This bill authorizes the various federal science mission agencies, such as NASA, NOAA, NSF, Dept. of Energy etc., including their significant investments in STEM education. There are several key elements of the bill that are supportive of informal/afterschool STEM programming:

  • The bill calls for the creation of an external advisory panel to advise the Committee on STEM Education of the National Science and Technology Council (CoSTEM) and specifically directs that members include qualified individuals from “academic institutions, nonprofit organizations and industry, including in-school, out-of-school, and informal education practitioners.” The bill language also directs the advisory panel to consider the appropriateness of criteria used to evaluate effectiveness of programs and how to leverage private and non-profit STEM investments and encourage public-private partnerships to improve STEM education.
  • There is a reaffirmation to broadening participation in STEM fields of women, minorities and people with disabilities.  Of interest to the afterschool field is that the bill asks the Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to award grants that support mentoring programs and conducting outreach programs that engage K-12 students.
  • There is also a new K-8 grant program that can be used to design cooperative and hands-on learning programs, providing role models and mentors and greater exposure to STEM events, competitions and professionals.  Afterschool leaders should make note of the following ways funds can be used:
    • “training of informal learning educators and youth-serving professionals using evidence-based methods consistent with the target student population being served;”
    • “innovative strategies to engage under-represented students, such as using leadership skill outcomes measures to encourage youth with the confidence to pursue STEM course work and academic study;” and
    • “co-ordination with STEM-rich institutions including other nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations, classroom and out-of-classroom settings, institutions of higher education, vocational facilities, corporations, museums or science centers.”

Recognition of STEM programs "codified into policy"

At the actual Committee markup, Senator Markey (D-MA) introduced an amendment that would create a new cross-directorate grant award at NSF to support partnerships between institutions involved in informal STEM learning, higher education and education research centers. 

The COMPETES bill has a long way to go, as it still has to be voted on by the full Senate and then reconciled with the House version of the bill, which is very different. But this is an extremely promising situation and highlights that there is increasing recognition of the vital role afterschool programs and informal STEM education programs play in strengthening STEM education. It's very gratifying to see this recognition codified into policy, but much work still remains to be done to ensure that policymakers continue to support afterschool STEM learning when there are tough budget decisions to be made.