ACTNow! calls for universal after-school programs, not “vouchers”

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It is indeed my hope that the system of supports for after-school in Illinois will advance enough someday to break-out from today’s funding “silos” and “follow” the youth.  I applaud Rebecca Harris and Catalyst Chicago for helping to draw attention to this important issue. Nonetheless there is one point made in Ms. Harris’ article that requires correction.  ACTNow! (After-school for Children and Teens Now!) does not call for an after-school “voucher” system as the article states.  
 
ACTNOW! is a campaign to give all young people in Illinois access to quality after-school programs. It calls for the creation of a universal after-school program for young people age 6 – 19, and points to the need for greater state-level coordination.  I encourage you to visit the campaign’s website to learn more: www.actnowillinois.org.
 
So long as after-school programs are not simply adding hours to the school day, choice in after-school is not the same as “vouchering” in the context of public schools.  School participation is a mandate.  Participation in after-school programs is voluntary and depends on self-motivation.  Research shows higher quality after-school programs – and those therefore more likely to help students succeed – cover a diverse array of offerings including the arts and humanities, take place in a variety of settings and foster choice and autonomy the older the youth get. 
 
I believe government, libraries, parks and community organizations, together with schools and the broader community, have a role in helping to ensure all young people have access to quality after-school programs.  Therefore, choice becomes a compelling measure of quality for both an individual after-school program and for the system of after-school programs.  In this vision, youth and their families help us identify quality programs by “voting with their feet,” and all programs committed to quality receive supports to achieve it – a framework for helping successful programs to flourish and failing ones to falter.
 
But in Illinois today, choice for where and how to participate in after-school programs is limited because there is no dedicated, coordinated funding for after-school. There is not enough programming or funding, and what is there may be duplicative or not easily accessible to young people and their families. Shortfall estimates hover at 60% and dollars go straight into separate “silos” to schools, parks, libraries and community organizations and are left up to the whim of shifting budget priorities. 
 
Choice for our young people and the quality for what they have to choose from cannot be short-shrifted.  ACTNow! proposes concrete actions that can be taken today to ultimately achieve sufficient funding for Illinois’ youth and sufficient supports to programs.  Take action, go to www.actnowillinois.org today!

Sincerely,

Commissioner Mary Ellen Caron, Ph.D.
Chicago Department of Family & Support Services