Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Could NCLB Waivers Mean Waving Good-Bye to Federally Funded Afterschool?

By Guest Blogger Cathie Mostovoy of Mostovoy Strategies

Cathie Mostovoy
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Washington and Wisconsin were the latest states to receive No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers, giving them “flexibility from key provisions of No Child Left Behind in exchange for state-developed plans to prepare all students for college and career, focus aid on the neediest students, and support effective teaching and leadership.” This came on the heels of the previous week’s news that waiver applications from five other states had been approved. With these recent seven additions, a total of 26 states have now been granted NCLB waivers.

In the ten years since it was enacted, NCLB has become the education policy that we love to hate so granting waivers to allow more control at the local level should be a welcome shift, right?  Presumably yes, but the devil is in the details, which brings us to the optional 11th waiver, a waiver that allows 21st Century Learning Centers (21stCCLC) funds – money that was originally designated for out-of-school programs -- to be used to lengthen the school day, week, or year. Seventeen states applied for and received this waiver, and that has left supporters of afterschool and summer programs understandably scratching their heads about what this means for the future. Here are a few of the questions that come to mind:

Will the lure of 21stCCLC dollars shift money away from afterschool and reduce access despite the unmet demand for these programs? 

Earmarking 21stCCLC funds for out-of-school enrichment has encouraged schools and community-based organizations to form cooperative, constructive relationships to further their mutual interests. The 11th waiver could turn allies into competitors if they feel they are vying for the same resources. Should that come to pass afterschool programs could lose a lot of funding and a lot of ground.

Is it cost effective to shift 21stCCLC funds away from afterschool programs? 

There are several factors to consider here. One is the potentially high cost of adding time to school schedules, which among other things, necessitates paying credentialed teachers. Another is that 21stCCLC grants provide leverage for afterschool providers to raise additional funds, thereby significantly increasing the value of each grant dollar that goes into these programs. Most schools lack the capacity to do significant fundraising, meaning that a dollar spent to add to a school schedule will most likely be worth just that, a dollar.

Is adding time to the school schedule an effective strategy overall? 

A key lesson from the decades the afterschool community has spent honing quality programs is that students are less engaged when they feel a program is merely an extension of the school day. Conversely, providing students with a stimulating environment that they perceive to be different from the school day is an effective way to support in-school learning and student achievement. (In other words, even though afterschool programs may take place at school, the kids who attend don’t want to feel like they are still in school.) With this in mind, one has to wonder if replacing afterschool programs with more time in the same place with the same teachers will have a positive, measurable impact.

If a trade-off has to be made, is the potential loss of afterschool programs worth what is gained from a longer school schedule? Would the 11th waiver inadvertently undermine the DOE goals?

The three-hour window afterschool programs occupy at the end of the school day provides the time and space to offer valuable experiential and project-based learning activities that will be difficult to replicate within the constraints of even an expanded school day. Afterschool programs have become an integral part of a healthy educational system. As a primary source of physical activity and nutrition education, they are positioned at the forefront of the fight against obesity. The activities they offer reinforce school day lessons by allowing students to apply what they learn to activities that interest them. Afterschool programs offer students opportunities to build knowledge, perfect skills, and develop portfolios can they use when they apply to college -- something that directly supports the DOE mandate to “prepare students for college and career.” Furthermore, in low-income communities afterschool programs are often the only source of enrichment available and the only safe place kids can go to engage in physical activity. Losing programs in these neighborhoods without a substantial replacement would directly contradict the intention to “focus aid on the neediest students.”

To be fair, the Department of Education has issued instructions saying states cannot waive the existing 21st CCLC requirements that prioritize school-community partnerships and that programming that adds time to school schedule cannot be “more of the same.” But, these broad guidelines offer little clarification and raise additional questions. What, for example, does “more of the same” mean?  Is the addition of a new lesson plan enough to qualify as different?

The future remains to be seen, and all of these questions could turn out to be empty worries. But, why should we wait and see when something is this important? This is worth discussing now. If we work together to examine the questions and come up with answers, we can avoid pitfalls and make sure that we end up with an educational system that offers more rather than less benefits to the children it serves.

Cathie Mostovoy is a proven executive leader with more than 25 years’ experience administering youth development and educational programs. Cathie has been a spokesperson to advocate health and education issues for children and youth; she has appeared on national, state and local radio shows, print media and television.  Her expertise is in organizational growth, strategic partnerships, and program and leadership development.

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