Wednesday, January 11, 2017

When Is the New Year Again?

This week's guest column by Daniela Grigioni examines how uncertainty at the federal level, from the congressional budget to the presidential transition, impacts local service delivery. A shorter version of this op-ed runs this week in the Current.

Across the diverse community that is Washington, DC, we’re lucky to have multiple opportunities to mark the New Year. There’s New Year’s Day on January 1, but there’s also the Chinese New Year coming up at the end of January. In September, we’ll mark Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the Islamic or Hijri New Year.

Congress enjoys the liberty to set its own calendar. And while the examples above are fixed annual traditions, when it comes to the federal budget and the beginning of the 2017 fiscal year, we’ll soon be marking our third "New Year’s Day" of the year. The first was on October 1, 2016, the official start of the 2017 fiscal year. Unfortunately, Congress elected not to pass a full FY17 budget, adopting instead a short-term spending bill that funded the government for nine weeks, thus avoiding a budget fight in the midst of the presidential campaign. When that funding expired on December 9, our second "New Year’s Day" for the 2017 fiscal year, Congress opted for another short-term measure to carry the government through most of April, leaving funding for the end of the 2017 fiscal year – May through September – unresolved.

Federal Policies, Local Impacts
Federal grants play a huge role in my work — providing afterschool programs for children. The federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) initiative provides funds to DC and to the states, which in turn award grants to community-center or school-based afterschool programs. The After-School All-Stars DC program at Charles Hart Middle School is lucky enough to receive a 21st CCLC grant that makes all the difference to the participating children, and to their families. 

Coming from some of the most impoverished areas in DC, students at Hart are able to enjoy art exploration, dance, athletics, mentoring, a phenomenal class in Healthy Eating run by a professional chef, a farm-to-table garden project, singing and performing, spoken word and poetry, in addition to a partnership with TechBridge, an organization that exposes young girls to the sciences. As part of the afterschool programming, children learn about many careers they might not otherwise, as well as college campuses and college life, and they join in service projects, and meet volunteers and mentors who help them develop leadership skills and the competencies necessary to be competitive on the college and job market.

But running a good program depends not just on having the funding, but also on being able to plan for what funding you’ll have. The federal delay in adopting a full-year budget means DC and the states won’t know how much money they’ll have for 21st CCLC grants until April, seven months into the fiscal year. They may guard against the prospect that Congress might decide to cut funding for afterschool programs, in some cases by holding off on making any grants at all until they know exactly what kind of resources they’ll have. Indeed, if funding were cut, this source of safe, healthy and enriching activities might just disappear. Many children would return to an empty home or remain in the streets and, for many who receive meals through their afterschool program, dinner would be uncertain.

Cost of Uncertainty
Who knows what to expect in the new budget? Every transition brings uncertainty and this one is no exception. The President-elect will have new initiatives, and presumably some cuts to propose, and Congress should and will have its say. We can certainly hope that something as important and worthy as support for afterschool programs never ends up on the chopping block. 

Still, having multiple fiscal New Year’s Days comes at a cost, and the uncertainty it creates for afterschool — and for other essential funding streams – is one of them.  Our students, our families, our workforce, and our country itself suffer with this kind of uncertainty.  In the context of these challenges, it is extremely important that we afterschool providers remind ourselves and others of the value of out-of-school-time programs.  In many communities, we are an anchor for young people and their families; we guarantee a constant and safe presence of service and care; we keep on leveling the playing field for disadvantaged youth.

At After-School All-Stars we’ve tried to diversify our connections.  We work hard on creating volunteer opportunities so that professionals from different walks of life can meet our students and understand how positively afterschool programs impact their lives.  As service providers, we need to continue to expose our work to policy makers, the private sector, the business community and the philanthropic community.

At a time when there aren’t nearly enough afterschool programs to meet the need, our federal budget process should provide certainty and support – not present additional challenges.

Daniela Grigioni is the Executive Director of After-School All-Stars DC. She is a 2016-17 Afterschool Ambassador for the Afterschool Alliance.

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