Politics + Science = Science Fiction

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The Bush administration unveiled its request last month to cut funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CLC) program by 40 percent for fiscal 2004. This is not good news. But it is not surprising.

Dozens of social programs will suffer cutbacks in the next budget as the nation prepares for war, further cuts taxes and adjusts to the expense of operating in a post-Sept. 11 world.

Even without dire budget predictions, the Bush plan would not have been a surprise. It is a rare elected official who expands rather than downsizes the pet programs of his or her predecessor, especially when that predecessor represented the opposing party.

The idea of volunteer national service proved enticing enough to warrant reinvention by both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The after-school concept has proven to be equally strong. President Bush is not eliminating the CLC program. He is transforming it to meet his goals and his budget, just as President Clinton did.

Clinton leveraged a broadly defined but barely known Community Schools program, funded at $40 million in FY 1998, to create a more focused after-school program to “end social promotion.” In FY 2002, the program captured an unprecedented $1 billion in federal funds.

What is surprising and, frankly, disturbing, is the Bush administration’s decision to overlay a valid if debatable political decision with a hastily applied veneer of science.

Scientifically based research should play a more central role in political decisions to expand, redefine or reduce programs. When used correctly, research can be a powerful counterweight to limit the big pendulum swings frequently associated with popular programs, to accelerate the growth of effective programs, and even to curtail the expansion of popular but ineffective programs.

All rhetoric about “evidence-based” efforts notwithstanding, the Bush administration did not respect the protocols of science in this case. First, the administration announced the cuts just as it was releasing a report, “When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st-Century Learning Centers Program, First Year Findings,” by Mathematica Policy Research.

Coupling the release with the budget reduction plan effectively cut off discussion about the scientific validity of the report, the implications of the findings and the practical wisdom of the response.

Second, the administration recommended a draconian cut based on the findings of one study, using one year of data collected on programs that were only a few years old – even with several large, scientifically valid research studies available.

Third, it zeroed in on a set of negative findings about the impact of after-school activities on academic achievement – the focus of the No Child Left Behind Act – while ignoring findings that identify other impacts (such as increased parental involvement) and could guide program improvement.

Organizations like the Afterschool Alliance (www.afterschoolalliance.org) have done a good job of analyzing the First Year Findings report (which had been ready but unreleased for months). Many others will weigh in on how a budget cut of this magnitude will affect the newly scaled-up after-school field.

My hope, however, is that researchers, including the 12 who wrote the study, will step forward to challenge the process. Something even bigger than the 21st Century CLC has been jeopardized by this political sleight of hand. Politics will always inform the policy process. But science can only inform the policy process if politics are, at least to some extent, left in the hall.

My hope also is that the newly created White House Task Force on Disadvantaged Youth will be allowed to do its job. The task force, announced in December, is made up of the secretaries of the key agencies that administer youth programs, and is charged with developing “a comprehensive federal response, under existing authorities and programs, to the problems of youth failure, with a focus on enhanced agency accountability and effectiveness.”

With roughly 200 federal youth programs on the books, some coordination, consolidation and maybe even elimination are no doubt overdue. But rash cuts will undermine the trust needed to bring departments and agencies together. A comprehensive response requires a collaborative, disciplined analysis with objective criteria.

Picking off programs one at a time is definitely a response, but it is neither comprehensive nor scientific.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. Contact: karen@iyfus.org.