This post was co-written by Bob Seidel, policy director at the National Summer Learning Association.
Lucy Friedman of The After-School Corporation and Jennifer Peck of Partnership for Children and Youth make excellent points in their Sept. 23 post, "Time for Congress to Stand up for Expanded Learning." We would like to expand on what they say.
The sentiment implied by the "Empowering Local Educational Decision Making Act," authorizing local communities to use federal funds in ways specifically adapted to local circumstances, is worthy. But we must go beyond sentiment to truly empower states and local communities to make the best informed use of resources, including federal funds.
The federal government provides only a small fraction of the public education funds spent by school districts across the country. But its influence far exceeds the dollars provided. For better or worse, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind initiative (NCLB), launched nearly a decade ago, has had a tremendous impact on state and local education policy. The current calls for more local autonomy are in large measure a response to NCLB.
The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) is a key opportunity for the federal government to provide valuable information to states and local communities on the latest research on the challenges that public education faces in the 21st century as well as on solutions that local communities might adapt to address their specific needs.
Congress should remember that it originally passed ESEA as part of its historic package of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. In that tradition, federal leadership on ongoing education reform is not only a necessity, but a responsibility. Calling attention to the best available research is part of that responsibility. Our students, families, and communities deserve no less.
For example, as Friedman and Peck pointed out, research shows clearly that before-school, after-school, and summer learning programs address critical academic and non-academic needs to support student success. This June, the RAND Corporation released a report, "Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children's Learning," which summarizes the research on the tremendous impact that summer learning loss has on millions of students, primarily from lower-income families. The report also demonstrates the benefits of summer learning programs for these students and makes specific recommendations for implementation of high-quality programs.
The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program already supports such programs. The federal government should share the research with states and local communities and dedicate resources that they can use to apply that research. Congress and the Administration should make a clear statement that these programs address critical community needs and that the federal government is committed to supporting high-quality "expanded learning opportunities."
Dissolving the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program would send the opposite message and be a major step in the wrong direction (though some tweaking based on the latest research would probably be a good thing). Empowering local communities is essential. Knowledge is power; sharing it is one thing that the federal government can and should do to support local education decision-making.