City official calls for after-school program vouchers

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If Chicago Family and Support Services Commissioner Mary Ellen Caron gets her way, Chicago’s after-school funding landscape could be turned on its head with money following children, rather than being awarded to programs.

If Chicago Family and Support Services Commissioner Mary Ellen Caron gets her way, Chicago’s after-school funding landscape could be turned on its head with money following children, rather than being awarded to programs.
As is the case with school choice vouchers, the idea is controversial. But Caron said at a luncheon today that it would ensure that good, popular programs blossom, while poor ones falter.  The luncheon, “Marrying Schools and After-School Time,” was part of the Chicago Schools Policy Luncheon Series organized by Catalyst Chicago and Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI).
The idea is part of legislation being drawn up by a broad-based coalition called ACT Now! Afterschool for Children and Teens Now). ACT Now! is seeking a dedicated, state funding stream for after-school activities that support student learning.
“I would like to see young people get an individualized outof-school time menu, and get to choose what to participate in,” Caron said. She acknowledged concerns about children whose parents are not aware or involved, but said that community groups could be counted on to help them chose their programs.
Also at the luncheon, Suzanne Armato, executive director of the Federation for Community Schools, said that school-based after-school partnerships also must be strengthened. She noted that such partnerships bring in $4 to $7 of community resources for each $1 of funding they require.
“Some kids can’t walk three blocks to the YMCA,” Armato said. “We have to rally around our children. What better place to do that, than the school?”
The Illinois Legislature already has passed legislation supporting community schools, but it has not approved funding. 
Caron said that ACT Now is bringing together programs that used to compete for funds. 
ACT Now is not yet talking dollar  amounts. 
Currently, after-school programs are funded through targeted state and federal  grants and private foundations. 
A student-based funding effort has been under way since fall 2008 in Palm Beach County, Fla., where many five-day-a-week after-school programs are now funded based on attendance, rather than through line-item appropriations.
Organizations are getting about the same amount of money overall, says Jerry Frenz, the chief financial officer of Prime Time Palm Beach County.
His organization provides quality improvement assistance to after-school providers in the area, and he has helped some programs with the switch from line-item to per-pupil budgeting.
The Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County – which funds after-school programs there – has phased it in gradually, with more programs added to the model each quarter.
“The more children you serve, the more money your program can make,” Frenz says. 
One downside of the program in Palm Beach County is that if children don’t show up consistently, they get less money. Yet they still have to pay staff salaries. 
On the other hand, such policies ensure that taxpayers “are only paying when children attend.” In addition, programs get more flexibility to spend their money,  Frenz says.
For Chicago, Caron said, pursuing universal after-school funding is the next step in the department’s ongoing efforts to make programs more accessible. The department has launched a website with a program finder that includes offerings by the five organizations and institutions, including the Chicago Park District, that make up the Chicago Out of School Time Project.  
The web site soon will expand to include other organizations. 
“We’re looking to make it easier for young people,” Caron says.
She compared ACT Now! to the campaign that brought universal preschool programs to Illinois. “The out-of-school time movement is following, very closely, the early-childhood movement,” she said.
Caron also detailed the Chicago Out of School Time Project’s efforts to improve program quality, which Catalyst Chicago reported on in its just-published winter issue.
She noted that after-school programs can provide students with the benefits of extended school days and years, without costing nearly as much money.
“I don’t think we are going to extend the school day or extend the school year any time soon, due to our current budget problems,” Caron said. 
For more information on: 
The Federation for Community Schools go to http://www.ilcommunityschools.org/ 
For a study on how much it costs for after-school programs go to The Wallace Foundation’s Out-of-School Time Cost Calculator