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What does a new president and Congress mean for afterschool STEM?

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What does a new president and Congress mean for afterschool STEM?

President Joe Biden was sworn into office on January 20, marking the beginning of a four-year term with the pandemic still front and center in the eyes of policymakers and the general public. The first steps for President Biden and Congress have been aimed at getting a handle on the pandemic, which was outlined in the president’s American Rescue Plan on January 15. But for STEM education, particularly informal and afterschool STEM education, there will be a need to expand the role these programs play in providing the hands-on learning experiences to supplement the school day.

The recent focus of Congress has been on learning loss and the range of supports needed for students to recover what they’ve lost over the last year. Much of this recovery is, or will be, driven by accountability measures in the Every Student Succeeds Act, with reading and math likely receiving the most attention due to testing associated with those subjects. This could mean a reduced amount of time spent on subjects like science, computing, and arts that will drive a greater reliance on outside partners like afterschool and summer programs to support students with hands-on STEM, arts, and SEL programming as part of a comprehensive learning recovery strategy.

Once Congress and the administration can shift from COVID relief to recovery, a few STEM related pieces of legislation are likely to be reintroduced and make their way through the legislative process. Each of these, in their own ways, have the opportunity to support afterschool STEM education to different degrees. We could also see additional pieces of legislation introduced to emphasize the importance of the afterschool and summer field, along with other informal STEM partners, in supporting students in the learning recovery process.

Rural STEM Act

The Rural STEM Act was close to making its way through congress during the last session, with the house passing it in September 2020. It was introduced in the Senate toward the tail end of 2020 but did not move through committee quick enough to pass on the floor. The bill would provide funding for the National Science Foundation to create several research grants to identify effective STEM practices and programs for both educators and students in rural areas and includes language specifying afterschool and out-of-school time STEM programs as eligible partners on these projects. We anticipate this bill being reintroduced this year.

INSPIRES Act

The INSPIRES Act was introduced in the Senate by Senator Schatz (D-HI) and aims to provide new federal funding to modernize and repair STEM and career and technical education (CTE) classrooms and facilities. After-school and summer programs often utilize these facilities, particularly programs focused on STEM learning, and improving their access to technology, labs, and other resources would provide additional opportunities for youth to experience hands-on STEM learning in their programs. Look for this bill to be reintroduced in the next few months by Senator Schatz where it could potentially be incorporated into COVID recovery legislation or continue on its own as a standalone bill. It currently does not have a sponsor in the House.

Will HEA reauthorization include support for informal STEM?

In addition to the above bills, Congress will have a number of overarching pieces of education legislation up for reauthorization. Last congress, Democrats and Republicans each released competing versions of the Higher Education Act but never advanced a bipartisan bill before the pandemic took center stage. We’ll get a better idea of Congress’ intentions for reauthorization in the coming months. If the pandemic is confined by summer, Congress could look to resume their track towards HEA reauthorization.

For afterschool STEM supporters, will there be an opportunity to expand teacher diversity programs that also include afterschool and summer as a place for teachers to get experiences but also to recruit from? Congress could support the use of informal education spaces – such as science centers and afterschool programs – to revamp teacher training. A greater emphasis could also be placed on providing new educators with implicit bias training so educators do not inadvertently discourage students from underrepresented groups from pursuing STEM education pathways and careers. Finally, efforts to increase diversity within teaching could be expanded to also include afterschool educators in those programs, and pathways could be developed for afterschool staff to pursue post-secondary education and teaching credentials as formal school teachers.

Potential Administrative Moves to Support Afterschool STEM

In December, the Afterschool STEM Hub submitted recommendations to President Biden’s transition team on how they can support afterschool STEM in the next administration. Among the recommendations were moves that the new administration can take to support STEM education, including appointing a STEM Coordinator at the White House to drive a STEM education agenda across the federal government, engaging informal STEM educators, and developing a research agenda to understand and address systemic STEM equity issues through informal and afterschool STEM programs. The new administration will have opportunities to expand support for STEM in afterschool through discretionary grant programs at the Department of Education, new or expanded interagency partnerships with additional federal agencies, and emphasizing the importance of informal and afterschool STEM as NSF’s begins to update its strategic plan. Many of these actions will not require the input or authorization of Congress, and could be completed early on in the administration.

Legislation already moving through 117th Congress

On February 5, the House passed the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021 on a bipartisan vote. The bill would invest more than $3.5 billion over five years to expand Registered Apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships, and pre-apprenticeships, and create over create over one million apprenticeship opportunities over five years. The bill would establish the Office of Apprenticeship within the Department of Labor to ensure participation and diversity in apprenticeship programs and require both the Department of Labor and Department of Education to align youth apprenticeships to high school graduation requirements and simplify the transfer process between institutes of higher education and apprenticeship programs. While the legislation is broad in covering all aspects of apprenticeship, it does include a STEM focus, with computer science, media, and renewable energy included as eligible nontraditional apprenticeship industries.

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