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New year, new Congress, new momentum

By Erik Peterson

2015 has only just begun but Congress is already into its second week and legislative priorities are emerging for the year ahead.  The 114th Congress convened last week with Republicans controlling both the House (246 Republicans to 188 Democrats, 1 vacancy) and the Senate (54 Republicans to 44 Democrats, with 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats) as a result of the 2014 midterm elections.  What does the 114th Congress have in store that could impact afterschool and summer learning programs?  Plenty.

ESEA Reauthorization

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) includes two critical funding and policy supports for afterschool and summer learning programs that serve children and families at the community level: the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative (21st CCLC) and the Title I, Part A program.  Seven years after it was first due to be reauthorized, the ESEA reauthorization process has new life this Congressional session.  New Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) intends to hold a hearing on K-12 education policy the same day as the President’s State of the Union address—January 20.  It will be the first in what has been described as a “short series” of hearings on ESEA and this first session will focus on the hotly debated topic of testing.  Beyond the series of hearings, Chairman Alexander has set a goal of getting an ESEA bill passed by the Committee before the House and Senate’s February district work period—the week of President’s Day.  On the House side, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) has also gone on the record saying he would like to see an ESEA bill on the floor of the House of Representatives by the end of March.  All indications point to close communication between the two chairmen.

Supporters of afterschool programs will be looking at both House and Senate ESEA proposals to gauge the impact of the legislation on the 11,500 federally-supported, school and community based 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which collectively provide quality programming and engaging enrichment activities to over 1.6 million low-income students.  Senators Boxer (D-CA), Murkowski (R-AK) and Murray (D-WA) are expected to reintroduce the Afterschool for America's Children Act, their legislation strengthening 21st CCLC, early this year. Friends of afterschool can weigh in now with their members of Congress on the value of afterschool and summer learning programs.

Child Nutrition Reauthorization

Following close on the heels of ESEA will be the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which authorizes the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program in addition to the Summer Food Service Program and CACFP At Risk Afterschool Meals Program. The latter two programs provide millions of nutritious meals to children in afternoon programs throughout the school year and during the summer. While a key issue will be nutrition standards for school lunches, of utmost concern to afterschool advocates will be improving access to meals when school is out of session through improvements to the Afterschool Meals and Summer Food Service Program.  Senators Gillibrand (D-NY) and Murkowski’s bipartisan Summer Meals Act introduced last Congress would help streamline the programs while increasing the number of young people eligible to be served. The House Education and the Workforce Committee and Senate Agriculture Committee are both expected to begin scheduling hearings on the Child Nutrition Act this spring. 

America COMPETES Act Reauthorization

The 114th Congress could also see the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act which authorizes the federal government’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs as part of a larger strategy to remain competitive in the global economy.  Currently about $3.5 billion is spent on STEM, although not all of that is on K-12 STEM education initiatives.  The America COMPETES Act reauthorization process represents an opportunity to provide additional resources and support for informal STEM education and afterschool STEM programming that can inspire young people to pursue STEM careers.  The Supporting Afterschool STEM Act introduced in both chambers last Congress would provide needed infrastructure at the state level to increase the number of quality STEM afterschool programs. 

Budget and Appropriations Process

In addition to the program and policy reauthorizations mentioned above, the 114th Congress will also tackle fiscal year 2016 budget resolutions and the accompanying appropriations process.  After a two year temporary hiatus as a result of the December 2013 agreement between then Budget Committee Chairs Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the spending caps of the Budget Control Act with the threat of sequester returns this appropriations cycle bringing the possibility of cuts to domestic discretionary spending.

With regard to FY2016 appropriations bills, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committee leaders have expressed their commitment to proceed under regular order.  This would mean a process that includes committee hearings, markups, and passage in each chamber followed by a conference agreement for each of the 12 appropriations bills.  If this happens, it would be the first time in a number of years.  The budget process will likely kick off in early February with the release of the President’s FY16 budget request on February 2.  Advocates for afterschool programs should prepare to contact House and Senate budget and appropriations committee members beginning in the spring to make the case for continued federal support of afterschool and summer learning programs.

Use the Afterschool Alliance Policy and Action Center to identify members of Congress, committee members, and to email members.