Victories for STEM education in recent legislative activity

by Anita Krishnamurthi

There have been several wins for afterschool STEM education lately as the legislative season winds down. 

Most recently, on July 13-14, 2016, the House Appropriations Committee marked up the fiscal year 2017 Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) funding bill.  It maintains funding for 21CCLC at the current level of $1.16B which is very good news! (As you might recall, the Senate cut afterschool by $117M in line with the President’s budget request.)  STEM is increasingly an integral part of afterschool programs, so this for funding 21CCLC will ensure that millions of children will continue to have access to STEM learning opportunities within their afterschool programs.  It also provides $1B for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program, the new block grant in ESSA.  Although this is lower than the authorized level of $1.65B, the House appropriation puts the funding at $700M over the Senate LHHS bill and $500M 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 to districts to be used for 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 Act (which 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 “support for programs and activities that increase access, student engagement, and success in STEM fields (including computer science), especially for underrepresented groups.” This 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).  You can read more about it in Jillian’s great blog!

Finally, the Senate Commerce Committee marked up S. 3084, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act – a plan to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act – in 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:

  • It 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.”

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 is very gratifying to see this recognition now being 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.   



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