THE BLOG
11/02/2012 06:51 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Presidential Approaches to Expanded Learning

This July, Tyrell, a spirited seventh grader from Ranson Middle School in Charlotte, NC, ran to the stage to receive his medal for completing the BELL Summer learning program. Ready to enter the eighth grade the following month, his father was thrilled to see his son engaged and looking forward to the new school year. Even Tyrell's teacher noticed changes in his attitude after the six week program: He's able to focus better, work harder, and isn't afraid to ask questions anymore.

Tyrell, like thousands of other students throughout the country, benefited from expanded learning in the summer months. Partnerships between schools and community organizations are what often brings these programs to students like Tyrell. However, our recent experience suggests that some approaches are more effective than others.

In 2003, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which included a provision for "Supplemental Educational Services" vouchers (SES). This required states and districts to begin offering "educational services" (i.e., after school tutoring) to students from low-income families attending specially designated schools, essentially creating a new marketplace for private providers to earn vouchers.

To us, SES was a great opportunity to pair philanthropic support with public SES resources and scale what we were already doing quite successfully -- narrowing the achievement gap for the highest-need students, like Tyrell, in partnership with the highest-need schools and communities. As a mission-driven organization, we held ourselves to the highest of standards and delivered as many hours of programming as possible. Most importantly, we measured performance and we increased student achievement, which is, after all, our bottom line.

Unfortunately, the SES provision of NCLB and its administration was flawed: it assumed that marketplace competition would result in the highest quality services being provided for students at the lowest possible cost. Rather, some competitors entered the market and delivered programing that only met minimum requirements and pocketed the remaining funds. It seemed that anyone with glossy brochures and a bag of lollipops -- or, in perhaps one of the most notorious SES schemes to be uncovered in New York City, a free TV -- could sell their "services" and recoup the voucher, valued at somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000 per student in cities like Chicago and New York City. For thousands of students, SES didn't work. Achievement and impact weren't always the bottom line.

It's no surprise then, that the Obama administration began issuing waivers to release states from NCLB benchmarks and SES requirements, and replace them with higher standards for evidence and impact. Enter the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2009 and includes the Social Innovation Fund (SIF). SIF differs from SES in that it's designed to use limited federal investment as a catalyst to grow community-based non-profits with evidence of strong results. For every dollar the federal government puts into SIF, an intermediary grant-making organization (usually a Foundation) puts in another dollar. That intermediary then selects proven nonprofits, which commit to raising another two dollars of match funding that comes from private sources -- foundations, corporations, individuals, fee for service contracts, etc. If you're keeping score, that means the Feds are on the hook for only 25 percent of the total cost of this initiative -- and it's all conditional on performance. SIF funding is limited not only in amount but in duration -- it's not meant to fund actual programs as much as it's meant to fund infrastructure and capacity. After a three-year grant, the idea is that nonprofits will be stronger organizations that are better able to partner with schools, marshal resources, and deliver great educational opportunities for kids.

To be fair: the goals of SES and SIF are totally different. But both have demonstrated that students and families have the most to gain when school and community partnerships are mission-driven and firmly rooted on ideas that work. At BELL, we experienced this first-hand with SES. Now we're in the second year of a three-year SIF grant focused on expanding our summer learning program, and we've already reached 17,000 students -- about 70 percent more than we would have without a SIF grant. When our last SIF funds come in the door in 2014, our work in these communities will continue to be defined by our ability to serve students in partnership with families, and schools with excellence, and by our ability to deliver real, tangible, and measurable outcomes.

Before he took off to celebrate with his family, Tyrell shared with us one thing he learned this summer that the next administration should reflect on too: "Some of the things you do now have a huge impact on your life later." No matter who wins on November 6, what the next administration does now will have a huge impact later. We hope whomever it is will continue to improve and expand on the lessons we've learned to ensure these kinds of partnerships flourish in our communities.