The Future of After-school Programs

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At a time of enormous economic and international uncertainty, a group of stalwart souls recently gathered in Los Angeles to assess the after-school field and its future. The lessons that emerged from the past decade and prognostications for the future were cause for both optimism and alarm.

Of primary interest to many Youth Today readers is the business climate for programs serving school-age children and teenagers. Terminology in the youth field can be confusing, even to experienced youth workers. “After school” and “youth service” are not quite interchangeable, but in the education world, “after school” loosely refers to all before school, post-3 p.m., and summer programs run by any public or private sponsor, including schools and youth-serving groups.

A 1993 study by several research outfits, including Mathematica Policy Research, found that about 28 percent of after-school sponsors were schools and 34 percent were non-school groups such as YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and churches. Less than half of all programs cited “remedial help to children having difficulty in school” as their mission. In other words, despite funding and political pressures, most programs appropriately emphasized trained supervision, fun and positive youth development.

In 1994, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CLC) program appeared in the federal budget, with a microscopic $1 million appropriation. The good news is that the program became the sleeper success story of Clinton-era funding for youth services. By 2002, spending was up to $1 billion. Currently, some 1.5 million children and youth are served through grants to 1,420 communities for programs at 8,800 sites, mostly public schools.

The bad news is that the program has been administered by the U.S. Department of Education (DoE), which doesn’t know youth work from needlework. At the urging of the education lobby, the justification for after-school funding was tied firmly to improving academic achievement. Eligibility to apply for the grants was limited to school districts – giving the same crew that struggles to teach the three R’s before 3 p.m. the right of first refusal on grant awards, as well as front-of-the-queue employment rights. With “after school” morphing into extended-day schooling, the traditional youth development and behavioral risk prevention agenda of youth services was largely pushed aside by policy-makers and the DoE.

Pushed well to the rear was funding for programs serving teenagers. According to an April 2001 study by Public/Private Ventures, 23 percent of participants are in grades seven and eight. Participants in the ninth grade or above made up only 2 percent of after-school enrollment. The “biggest problem” in enrolling teens, says Sanford Newman of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, is that many public school-administered programs start with a compulsory hour and 15 minutes of “homework help,” a real put-off to most older youth.

Shut out of directly applying for grants, advocates for youth-serving agencies successfully pushed Congress to broaden eligibility for CLC and transfer funding decisions to the states. Going along for the ride was the dubious expectation that after-school programs would raise academic achievement. In a paper for the Los Angeles symposium, professor Robert Halpern of the Erikson Institute in Chicago writes that after-school providers “have been unable to resist pressures to promise more than was commensurate with their means, and especially to promise to compensate for what other child development institutions should have been, but were not, providing low-income children.”

With the concurrence of its major outside partner, the Afterschool Alliance, a group largely underwritten by the C.S. Mott Foundation, the Clinton-era DoE gave a $13 million evaluation contract to Mathematica Policy Research that gave great weight to measuring academic improvement by kids after as little as a single year’s enrollment.

The result was an evaluation premised on the preeminent value of academic improvement in after-school programs. Using the Mathematica findings of no academic improvement, the Bush administration has proposed a 40 percent cut in CLC spending for next year. Combined with state budget cuts, the results are disheartening: California will lose more than $56.5 million, plus another $6.3 million in state spending. Minnesota will drop by a combined $15.4 million; New York, by over $75 million. Using the $700 claimed by the federal government as its expenditure per year per youth, the national cuts of $458 million would deny after-school programs to 650,000 kids from low-income families.

Undoubtedly, the Mathematica evaluation served as a convenient alibi for justifying cuts in the CLC budget. With the federal budget going from a $230 billion surplus in 2000 to a projected $287 billion deficit this year (driven by tax cuts), virtually every domestic social welfare program faces the sharp end of the axe.

But there is a broader lesson here for the future of the youth service: Beware of Faustian bargains that link funding to a specific “measurable” outcome. If one-third of a century of evaluating public funding for drug abuse, delinquency or early pregnancy prevention has proven anything, it is that only a comprehensive youth development approach will bring sustained results. The youth service alone can no more prevent these social ills than it can raise academic achievement.

Trying to justify after-school spending as a form of remedial education is to be suckered into an unwinnable competition for public funding. Advocates, including the Afterschool Alliance, can make a persuasive case for after-school spending without pledging to accomplish the impossible. What needs to be rectified is the national under-investment in low-income children.

Now, that could stand evaluating. Might we suggest to the Bush administration and Mathematica that the after-school fee-for-service activities of the children of the wealthy, and their cost, be used as the control group in their next study?