Eighteen years ago, Angela Henry decided to leave her job with an insurance company to head up an after-school program near her home in southeastern Kansas. Her parents and sister urged her to reconsider.
At the time, Henry was a single mom, making a steady $25,000 a year. The after-school program’s funding depended on fickle grant money. Why would Henry want to take a job that might not be around in another two years, her family wondered?
Nearly two decades later, Henry is still the director of SAFE BASE, which currently serves low-income children in kindergarten through 6th grade.
She’s exposed her students to Spanish, French, and yoga. She’s gotten them front-row seats to the dissection of a pregnant shark carcass. She took them on a camping trip to Colorado, giving many their first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains.
But she’s never shaken the feeling that her job—and the program, which is currently financed in large part by the endangered $1.2 billion 21st Century Community Learning Center federal program—could disappear.
“I have been on edge with funding for 18 years,” said Henry. She spends a lot of time “piecemealing” smaller grants together and once postponed surgery for thyroid cancer to finish an application. “It’s always living on a wing and a prayer because we never know whether or not we’re going to be there.”
SAFE BASE, which serves about 350 children, has been relatively fortunate in its longevity, Henry said. Similar programs serving poor children haven’t been so lucky.
Nationally, parents pick up most of the tab for after-school programs, providing about 76 percent of the funding through tuition and fees, according to an analysis by the Afterschool Alliance, a research and advocacy organization in Washington.
Federal funding through 21st Century Community Learning Centers can help low-income children gain access to the programs. But the federal program’s fate is often in question, despite some ardent supporters on Capitol Hill.
That’s been especially true since President Donald Trump took office in early 2017. He’s sought to scrap the program.
So far, Congress has rejected that proposal—and even boosted funding for 21st Century by $20 million in the most recent spending legislation, which primarily affects the 2018-19 school year.
But program directors aren’t breathing a sigh of relief. Trump has put the program back on the chopping block yet again in his most recent budget request, which generally affects the 2019-20 school year.
It isn’t easy to get the community and potential partners and supporters to buy in to a program that is slated for elimination, said Veronica Willeto, the center coordinator for the Pryor Community Learning Center in Montana, just south of Billings, on the Crow Reservation.
“It just kind of puts people in a mind frame that those dollars might not exist, and therefore, your program may not exist, so where else can we put our funds,” said Willeto, whose program receives a $50,000 annual grant from 21st Century. “That’s kind of the challenge for us. They’re just not really sure whether or not we’ll be sticking around.”
And it’s disheartening to hear that leaders don’t value the benefits that her program provides—including tutoring, snacks, and enrichment activities—to about 100 Native American students, all of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“I do think it’s a little bit discouraging because we work really hard, and we try our best, and we see on a daily basis what an after-school program is doing for our students and how it’s making a difference for them,” she said. “People think they’re paying for another type of day care. It’s more than that.”
This isn’t the first time that the program has come under threat. In 2015, when Congress was working on the Every Student Succeeds Act, House GOP lawmakers sought to consolidate the after-school grants into a broader, more flexible funding stream. But the Senate rejected that move.
And in 2004, the George W. Bush administration moved to slash the program’s budget by 40 percent, to $600 million. Congress refused to go along with that plan, too. In general, financing for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program has hovered at a little more than $1 billion for about a decade.
Impact on Poverty
The federal government picks up just 11 percent of the tab for after-school programs overall. But those dollars are more likely to help children in poverty, who may derive the biggest benefit from after-school academic help and enrichment, experts say.
“The nice thing about 21st Century is it provides high-quality after-care for parents who can’t afford it,” said Jodi Grant, the executive director of the Afterschool Alliance. “In this day and age, the homework, the tutoring, the mentoring are essential skills. Wealthy parents pay through the nose for this stuff.”
Forty-five percent of children in after-school programs in general qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, according to an analysis by the Afterschool Alliance using 2014 data. But 67 percent of the students served by the 21st Century program were eligible for those services, the Alliance found.
Participation in a high-quality after-school program can improve children’s academics, social-emotional skills, and even attendance, said Heather Weiss, the co-director of the Global Family Research Project, a research, advocacy, and practice organization in Boston.
“People argue that the gap in achievement between lower-income and more economically advantaged [children] is in part based on their differential access to after-school and summer learning programs,” she said.
State and Local Funding
State dollars make up a relatively small portion of the overall funding picture for after school, a little more than 3 percent overall, according to the Afterschool Alliance’s analysis. At least half a dozen states provided some funding for after school in 2017, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a research organization in Denver. California is the standout. It dedicates some $600 million to after-school programs, mostly focused on children in poverty. But when states face a funding squeeze, after-school programs can go by the wayside.
Both New Jersey and Washington state directed money to after school back in 2008, before the recession hit. But both states jettisoned the programs when money got tight, said Ashley Wallace, a program director with NCSL’s education program.
More recently, Wyoming, which is now facing a budget crunch, decided to allow school districts to use $11.5 million initially provided for the Summer Bridges summer and after-school program as a block grant. That means the funds can go for other purposes, such as general teacher salaries.
Cities and towns make up an even smaller piece of the funding pie, about 2.4 percent, according to the Afterschool Alliance’s analysis. Many local leaders want to invest in after school, but the programs compete with police, fire, library, housing, and other city services, said Bela Shah Spooner, the manager for expanded learning at the Institute for Youth Education and Families at the National League of Cities.
Still, some cities have been able to find funding for the programs, including Denver; Fort Worth, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; and San Francisco. Denver, for instance, has been using taxes from marijuana sales to help cover the costs.
After-school programs also benefit from the support of businesses, philanthropies, religious institutions, and other sources.
Still, the federal funding is still key for many programs that serve poor children. And even a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant is no guarantee of longevity.
Some states offer programs the opportunity to recompete for their five-year grants. But not every state runs a competition every year. Some programs are directed to find other sources of funding over the life of the grant, but five years isn’t always enough time to ensure sustainability. Programs have had to cut way back on their services or have disappeared entirely when their grants ran out.
That’s what happened to the program at Echo Mountain Elementary School in Phoenix. Its grant expired, and the state didn’t run another grant cycle. The program had to decrease its hours and services, said Tami Taylor, the former site coordinator.
“I don’t think that five years is horribly short, but it does go quick. There’s so many things on everyone’s plate,” said Taylor, who now heads up another after-school program that also receives 21st Century money, at nearby Campo Bello Elementary. “We have so little money in Arizona” for education.
Most schools and districts don’t retain the full-time grant writers needed to help the programs make up for the loss of federal funds, she said.
Debate Over Efficacy
Part of the reason the funding for after-school programs remain tenuous: Policymakers question whether the programs provide any academic benefit. The Trump administration said in budget documents that it wants to zero out the grants because “this program lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives, such as improving student achievement, in part because just two-fifths of program participants attend on a regular basis.”
Mark Dynarski, who conducted a study of the 21st Century program for the research firm Mathematica in the early 2000s, said his review showed it doesn’t get the academic outcomes for children that proponents claim.
“There are very formidable ideological forces pushing in favor of the program,” said Dynarksi, now a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “When I hear the evidence that they cite, I often find it to be highly selective.”
But 21st Century could hold other benefits for communities, Dynarksi said, like providing a safe place for children to go while their parents are working. That’s just not the outcome the federal government touts.
Weiss of the Global Family Research Project, however, argues these reports were done many years ago and offer only a snapshot of the program in its early years. After-school programs, including those that receive 21st Century Community Learning Center funds, have gotten a lot more sophisticated since then, she said.
Weiss also contends that the program’s shaky financial situation makes it harder for local leaders to plan for the future and get even better results.
Henry, the SAFE BASE director, agrees with that sentiment. She’s lost some good support staff over the years, including a future Kansas teacher of the year, because she couldn’t offer the stability employees wanted.
“If we didn’t have to worry all the time about funding, how could we expend that energy?” she wondered. “We could have this great plan going forward.”
Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2018 edition of Education Week as After-School Funding Remains on Thin Ice