Watch After-School Vouchers Get Shot Down in Congress

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It was billed as a congressional hearing about vouchers for after-school programs, but it was more akin to a grand jury proceeding, as prosecutors fed witnesses questions to indict the villain.

The villain was a presidential proposal to reduce funding for after-school programs and distribute the remainder as vouchers. The prosecutors were the Democrats who run the House Education and Labor subcommittee on early childhood, elementary, and secondary education, which held the hearing last month.

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“There’s something about that end of Pennsylvania Avenue that vouchers seem to be, really, a lure,” the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), said in reference to the White House.

Much to the jubilation of after-school supporters, funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CLC) was increased in fiscal 2008 by $100 million, to $1.1 billion. However, President Bush’s 2009 budget plan, released in February, proposes to cut CLC by $300 million and convert it to an after-school and summer scholarship program. Instead of agencies getting grants, youths would get vouchers to spend at programs of their choice.

The plan has almost no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Congress, where “vouchers” is an evil word, but Kildee – one of the authors of the original CLC legislation in 1994 – took no chances. He asked his stacked deck of four panelists a series of questions that allowed them to illuminate how efficient CLC grants are, how well the programs are run, how they keep kids off the streets, how the research shows the impact of after-school programs on academic achievement and how bad vouchers would be.

They would be “self-defeating,” declared LaDonna Gamble, interim project director at a Bridges to the Future before- and after-school program in Flint, Mich. The voucher money, she said, would be going in different directions, undermining program stability. They might also harm the objective of achieving regular youth attendance, a factor that studies show improves participants’ academic attitudes, behaviors and overall interest in learning.

Priscilla M. Little, associate director of the Harvard Family Research Project, said after-school programs are typically funded through a blend of sources, of which CLC is only one. But CLC funds, she said, help level the playing field by spreading money to disadvantaged areas, ensuring that all kids – not just affluent ones – have access to quality programs.

Offering the only critical comment about CLC during the two-hour hearing was Michael J. Carroll, chief of the West Goshen Township Police Department, in Pennsylvania. The chief said middle and high school kids are the “least served” by CLC and that more funds should be targeted toward them. Such youth, he said, are more likely to engage in or be victimized by crime in the after-school hours, or to get into automobile accidents.

Theresa Kough, education associate with the Delaware Department of Education, noted that states, which administer the program, can deal with that by adjusting their grant competitions to award “priority points” to target certain areas of need, such as older or disabled youth. She said her state did this after officials realized the bulk of CLC services benefited elementary school children.

Reflecting lawmakers’ interest in the impending debate on reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law, of which CLC will be a part, Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) asked how programs measure academic success. Kough said her department uses a continuous improvement model to align academic goals with after-school programs. Gamble, from Bridges to the Future, said evaluations by Michigan State University are showing “positive” results.

But stressing only test scores after school can limit overall youth development, said Harvard’s Little; she cautioned that “straight-up” academic after-school programs aren’t “sufficient.” The best outcomes, she said, come from programs that include academics as one part of a holistic approach involving other enrichment activities, like sports and arts.

Little spoke for many CLC grantees when she stressed, “There’s no research to suggest that vouchers will improve programming, increase participation [or] increase access.”