Congressional delays leave programs hanging

In our diverse and growing nation, we’re lucky to have multiple opportunities to mark the new year. There’s New Year’s Day. But there’s also a Chinese New Year’s Day coming up soon – Jan. 28. Other New Year’s celebrations include Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, marked in October in 2016 and September in 2017, and the Islamic or Hijri New Year, also in October in 2016 and September in 2017.

And then there’s Congress, which has the liberty to set its own calendar. When it comes to the federal budget and the beginning of the 2017 fiscal year, we’ll soon mark our third fiscal New Year’s Day of the year.

The first was on Oct. 1, the official start of the 2017 fiscal year. Instead of passing a budget to get the year off to a smooth start, Congress adopted a short-term spending bill that funded the federal government for a little more than two months, sparing itself a budget fight in the middle of an election season. When that short-term spending bill expired and we reached Dec. 9, our second New Year’s Day for the 2017 fiscal year, Congress delayed again by passing another short-term spending measure that will carry the government through most of April. That leaves funding for the end of the 2017 fiscal year – May through September – unresolved.

In my line of work – providing afterschool programs for children – grants from the federal government, and likewise state and municipal government, are a key part of the funding picture. The federal government’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative provides funds to states, which in turn award grants to a number of locally run community and school-based afterschool programs across the state. These grants make all the difference in the world to the children and families participating in these program.

Afterschool programs are a terrific investment. Lawmakers from both political parties have long recognized their value, because they keep kids safe, inspire them to learn, and help relieve working parents of worries about what their children are up to after the final school bell rings. These programs give kids homework help, support their social and emotional learning, provide opportunities for physical exercise, promote healthy eating, inspire students to learn about science, technology, engineering and math subjects and much more.

But as any businessperson could tell you, running a good program depends not just on funding, but also on being able to plan for what funding you’ll have. The delay in adopting a full-year federal budget means that states won’t know how much money they’ll have for 21st century grants to pass down to afterschool programs this year, because Congress won’t adopt a budget until the end of April, a full seven months into the fiscal year. States have to guard against the prospect that Congress will decide, for whatever reason, to cut funding for afterschool programs, and they might do that by holding off on making any grants at all until they know exactly what kind of resources they’ll have.

This leaves programs like the Wade Edwards Foundation (WELL) – a program focused on the unique academic needs of high school students – wary of applying for critical 21st century funding that would help us grow and serve more students.

President-elect Trump will have new initiatives, and presumably some budget cuts to propose as well. And Congress should and will have its say in deciding what the federal government’s spending priorities will be. 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 unnecessarily with this kind of budgeting. At this 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.

Betsey McFarland, Executive Director at the Wade Edwards Foundation (WELL) is a 2016-17 Afterschool Ambassador for the Afterschool Alliance.