Lights to Stay on at Statewide Afterschool Fund

John Mooney | November 1, 2011 | Education
NJ After 3's surprise reprieve by governor on eve of elections has some Democrats questioning timing

New Jersey After 3 won a financial reprieve on the day the statewide afterschool program was to shutter its doors, its rescue a combination of good timing, last-minute talks, and a little reform-minded politics.

The New Brunswick nonprofit had said yesterday would be its last day, after a poor economy and the elimination of state funding by Gov. Chris Christie left it broke three months into its eighth year.

Director Mark Valli said the office walls had been stripped as he prepared to walk out of the George Street headquarters for the final time.

But after saying last week that he had little choice but to cut the funding, Christie unexpectedly announced in a morning press conference that a solution had been found.

Long term, he said the organization that funded afterschool programs for close to 75,000 students might be able to tap into newly freed up — albeit still uncertain — federal money intended for such initiatives.

Short term, Christie said some friendly groups would pay an undisclosed amount for the organization to stay alive in the meantime. The lead funder will be philanthropist David Tepper, a hedge fund executive who helped launch the controversial Better Education for Kids (B4K), which is running a campaign for teacher quality and other reforms.

“New Jersey After 3 has identified other funders as well who are willing to come forward now that Mr. Tepper has offered to be the lead funder on this,” Christie said. “So today, New Jersey After 3’s doors will not close. They are going to remain open.”

Still, exactly when and how all this will happen remains far from certain. Even NJ After 3’s, Valli said he is short on details. And either way, the full resumption of its programs is still likely months away, depending on a few variables.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Valli said. “We have to secure these private interests, for one. Yes, a whole lot of work to do.”

Democrats questioned the timing of the announcement a week before the legislative election, as well as the involvement of B4K.

State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) had planned an event in Englewood yesterday protesting the imminent death of the program. She cancelled due to the weather and power outages, only to learn of Christie’s announcement.

“It’s great the program is being saved,” she said in a phone interview late in the day. “But why today and not back in June and July before the beginning of the school year?”

As for B4K, Huttle said the group has been one of Christie’s political allies and wondered about its agenda. “I have questions about all of that,” she said.

When exactly New Jersey After 3 will start to operate in earnest again remains a big question. After a cut of $3 million in state funding, it did not award any grants this fall and was operating on a skeleton staff.

Now the resumption of the program largely rests on New Jersey’s pending application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Included in that waiver would be some flexibility with federal funding now earmarked for outside tutoring. The application is in the works now, due to the federal government on November 14.

New Jersey’s acting education commissioner Chris Cerf has questioned the effectiveness of the tutoring requirement, and instead said that the money could be more effectively go “extended learning time,” be it longer days, longer weeks and longer years.

NJ After 3 would be one of recipients, Christie said yesterday, and Valli said it opens the way for a range of innovations in districts to tap into this and other organizations.

“This is an opportunity to really develop a whole new extended learning experience,” Valli said. “It is an eleventh hour opportunity, and really has the potential for ground-breaking stuff.”

Valli said he had little hope of the reprieve when he emailed friends and supporters last week about the program’s demise. In After 3’s history, there had been frequent talk of potentially tapping federal money, but to little avail, he said.

But a call from the governor’s office on Friday, and a face-to-face meeting with state officials, came up with the last-minute plan. “You have to realize I had it still marked on my calendar that this was the last day, we were ready to shut down,” Valli said yesterday.

Tepper was not at the meeting, and his or B4K’s precise involvement in the arrangement remains unclear. B4K executive director Derrell Bradford said he had no details and Tepper would be unavailable for comment. But he said B4K was not hiding any agenda.

“Our agenda is very clear,” he said. “We’re here to support common-sense, bipartisan education reforms.”

Still, the high-profile announcement by the governor about B4K’s role continues the slow emergence of the group into the mainstream.

Created this summer as a counterweight to the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the organization has largely been quiet beyond a couple of mailings in some legislative races.

But it has begun more organizing, and working with the nationwide Students First organization founded by former Washington D.C. schools leader Michelle Rhee. It is planning a series of regional meetings of members in the coming months. In addition, it is holding private roundtables of teachers to weigh in on pending teacher tenure and other legislative proposals.