08/22/2014 06:29 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2014

Jim Jeffords: A Founder of the Movement to Expand Afterschool Programs, a Hero to Children and Families

Before former Senator James Jeffords of Vermont introduced the first legislation to provide federal funding for after school in 1994, the federal government played essentially no role in providing meaningful support and programming for young people in the hours after the school day ended and before parents arrived home from work. Senator Jeffords, who passed away on Aug. 18 at the age of 80, was a pioneer in the national after school movement. He worked tirelessly to build congressional and presidential support for a national after school and summer learning program infrastructure that lives on today as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative (21st CCLC).

Senator Jeffords had many proud accomplishments, including chairing the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and helping to shape the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the No Child Left Behind Act and the Higher Education Act. But advocates for after school remember him best as one of the original authors of the legislation that created the 21st CCLC.

Jeffords was inspired to create the legislation after visiting a school in his home state and realizing that instead of closing at 3 pm, school buildings could be used as community centers and to house after school programs. When introducing the bill, he said, "this is a very important issue for me, but not nearly as important as it is to the parents of the nearly 24 million school-age children who need care while their parents work."

The 21st CCLC Act he helped create provided grants to both rural and inner-city public schools for "projects that benefit the educational, health, social service, cultural and recreational needs of a rural or inner city community." It authorized $25 million for a variety of activities, including literacy education programs, weekend programs and expanded library hours. Ultimately, it was included in the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; Congress appropriated $750,000 for it in Fiscal Year 1995.

The programs it funded were transformative. Senator Jeffords described 21st CCLCs as "centers of activity" in communities, offering "activities and services provided by community members for the benefit of school children ... as well as for the benefit of the adult members of the community." They promoted learning and literacy, exposed students to science and technology, offered opportunities for sports and fitness and made learning fun.

His leadership -- along with that of other key congressional champions, strong support from President Clinton and Secretary of Education Richard Riley, and a significant investment by organizations like the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation -- helped 21st CCLC expand rapidly in its first decade. In FY 1999, President Clinton proposed an $800 million increase for the program over five years.

As the program grew, it became more popular -- and that support was broad, deep and bipartisan. Perhaps most importantly, children and families were better off.

Today, more than 1.6 million students participate in programs funded by 21st CCLC -- the only dedicated federal funding source for quality after school and summer learning programs. The federal investment this year is $1.149 billion, which is being used by 11,500 school-based and community center partners to keep kids safe, inspire them to learn and support working families.

In an article entitled, "Fifteen Years of Evaluation of 21st Century Community Learning Centers: A Driver for Program Quality and Capacity in the Field," Heather Weiss, founder and director of the Harvard Family Research Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education wrote:

In 1997 there existed little by way of evaluation of after school programs. Since then, the federal investment in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, along with strategic evaluation investments by others, has built after school into a maturing field with demonstrated public value on an array of commonly valued youth outcomes... Quality after school programs that are well designed can positively impact areas on which they focus.

The country has not yet achieved Senator Jeffords' vision of after school for all children, but we are a lot closer than we would have been without his leadership and dedication. Today, millions of children have a place to go after the school day ends. They get homework help, mentoring and opportunities for physical fitness. They learn in teams, build robots and program computers. Many get free meals and exposure to colleges and careers they might not otherwise even have dreamed about.

The best thank you we could give Senator Jeffords would be to continue working until we reach the day when every child has access to a high-quality after school program.