President Donald Trump’s “America First” federal-budget blueprint, released last month, stands to undermine one of the nation’s most successful K-12 learning programs. The president’s suggested funding cuts would take away resources that are critical to the academic success and healthy development of our most vulnerable students.
The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program—the only source of federal funding, an annual $1.1 billion, for after-school and summer programs. Since the 1990s, the program has funded nearly 9,600 centers nationwide—most located in schools in high-poverty communities. This measure would affect the more than 1 million children now enrolled in federally financed programs across the country.
In rationalizing the proposed cut, Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget chief, claimed there is “no demonstrable evidence” that after-school programs, designed to help low-income children do better in school, are successful. Whether administration officials are consciously rejecting evidence or just alarmingly uninformed, they are completely wrong.
On the contrary, after-school and summer learning programs are a highly effective and cost-efficient way to maintain the educational progress students make during the school year. A 2008 study by the Harvard Family Research Project confirmed that participation in after-school programs was associated with a host of positive outcomes: better attitudes toward school; higher school attendance; lower dropout rates; better test scores and grades; and improved homework completion.
Summer and after-school learning also allows students to dive deeply into subjects of personal interest, explore potential career opportunities, or hone literacy skills. Teachers can deepen relationships with students and teach subjects with more depth and fewer restrictions.
In contrast, every summer without academic engagement increases disadvantages for low-income students. While middle- and upper-class students tend to have access to a variety of summer activities from camp to travel, which can spark excitement and new interests, low-income students normally do not have the same opportunities outside of the school year. Summer learning loss explains why, by the end of 5th grade, low-income students have fallen behind their more affluent peers in reading by almost three grade levels.
Every summer without academic engagement increases disadvantages for low-income students."
But evidence from the RAND Corportion suggests that three to four consecutive summers of high-quality learning beginning in pre-K can get underserved students reading at grade level by 3rd grade, making them four times more likely to graduate from high school.
Ironically, the president’s proposed budget states that the administration favors “improving student achievement and access to opportunity in elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education.” By eliminating funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, however, the budget proposal grossly misses its own mark, reinforcing that summer will remain a time of great inequity for students. Did the administration ask for input from the 85 percent of parents nationwide who support public funding for summer learning programs, or the 88 percent of teachers who say such programs are important for student success? Key constituents who know what children need to be successful strongly favor these kinds of investments.
Trump’s proposal also ignores that the quality of after-school and summer learning programs has vastly improved over the last few decades because of the U.S. Department of Education’s funding. The extra money has allowed schools to build professional-development programs for providers and staff and to continually assess program quality. Though most centers funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program partner with multiple community organizations, partners raised more than $1 billion in after-school and summer funding between 2006 and 2010, according to a February report by the Washington-based advocacy organization Afterschool Alliance. This doesn’t come close to federal funding levels.
Over the course of a nearly 40-year career in education, I have seen millions of dollars wasted on untested and expensive ideas to help the nation’s children improve. When I was the president of the Walmart Foundation, I prioritized giving to education and to after-school and summer learning initiatives because I believe in the necessity of closing the achievement gaps that exist in too many of our school systems.
In the coming weeks, Congress will begin the process for creating the new federal budget, which goes into effect Oct. 1. It’s my sincere hope that lawmakers will recognize the imprudence of the president’s proposal for after-school learning and rectify its funding in the budget that passes—for the good of our students and for the betterment and future of our country.
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as Trump Budget Puts America’s Students Last