President Donald Trump’s proposed budget seeks to slash the biggest federal investment in after-school programs and summer learning—the $1.1 billion 21st Century Community Learning Center program. The Trump administration argues the program is not very effective, but some advocates and educators beg to differ.
So is the program working? What would happen if the money went away?
Here’s a look at the program and what it offers:
What is the 21st Century Community Learning Center Program?
The program, which has been around since the early 1990’s, distributes money by formula to states to cover the cost of afterschool and summer programs, primarily for children in high-poverty communities. The U.S. Department of Education has funded about 9,556 centers through the program and served 1.6 million children, according to the Afterschool Alliance, an advocacy organization in Washington. About three-quarters of the students who participate are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the organization said in a report published earlier this year.
The Every Student Succeeds Act—the latest update to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—added a twist to the program. It can now be used for “afterschool like” components of extended learning time programs, the Afterschool Alliance explained.
What do these afterschool and summer programs offer?
These afterschool and summer programs can offer students everything from tutoring to meals and enrichment. Some even provide classes for parents.
For instance, Schools in Homes & Education, or SHINE, run by Lehigh Carbon Community College, offers kids who need an academic jump-start free after-school tutoring. The students also get to try their hand at some science, math, and engineering enrichment projects, including building and racing derby cars. And the program offers English as a Second Language instruction, as well as GED classes for parents.
A trio of after-school and summer programs in Cranston, R.I., that receives almost 100 percent of its funding from the 21st Century program has a similar STEM focus. Students might help design a greenhouse, or build a solar panel from scratch. Older students add a service learning component, working on neighborhood beautification for example. Now the students are working on letters to lawmakers, asking them to preserve 21st Century Community Learning Centers funding, said Ayana Crichton, the program director.
“It’s devastating to them to see the program get cut [in Trump’s proposal],” Crichton said.
Some school districts also benefit from the program, including the Kennett School District in southeastern Missouri, which receives a $400,000 grant. The district offers students an hour of tutoring in the morning, and another hour in the afternoon, plus enrichment. Students are then given a hot dinner and transportation home.
“We have a tremendous, tremendous after school program,” said Chris Wilson, the district superintendent. “If 21st century goes away, all of that goes away.”
What is the Trump administration’s rationale for getting rid of 21st Century Community Learning Centers program?
The administration’s budget request says that the program “lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives, such as improving student achievement.” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a general statement on the budget that the administration is putting its money on the highest value programs.
Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget was asked specifically about 21st Century during a March 16 press briefing.
Mulvaney said that there isn’t evidence that afterschool programs do anything to improve student achievement.
“They’re supposed to be educational programs, right? That’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home get fed so they do better in school,” Mulvaney said. “Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that. There’s no demonstrable evidence of actually helping results, helping kids do better in school.”
What does the research about the program—and afterschool programs in general—say?
Like a lot of other things in education, it depends on who you ask.
“There is a great deal of evidence from rigorous evaluations showing that after school programs promote a range of important developmental, learning and educational outcomes for kids,” said Heather Weiss, a co-director of the Global Family Research Project. She noted that these outcomes include gains in reading and math achievement, school attendance, in socio-emotional development and skills, and in health and wellness.
But Mark Dynarski, who helped conduct evaluations of the program in the early 2000’s as a researcher for Mathematica, doesn’t think it has done much to impact student achievement.
“The program didn’t affect student outcomes,” Dynarski, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a March 2015 blog post. “Except for student behavior, which got worse.” He referred to reports on the program released in 2003 and 2005.
Weiss, however, noted 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 explained.
They’ve been “focusing on quality improvement and using their own and others evaluations and data to insure quality and get bigger and sustainable impact,” Weiss wrote in an email.
What’s more, student outcomes are only part of the picture when it comes to the program’s effectiveness. For instance, recent research has shown “two generational benefits.” When parents place their children in high-quality after-school programs, they aren’t as worried about what their children are doing after school, and are more productive at work, Weiss said. And their children get the benefit of being in a safe, nurturing learning environment after school, she added.
Other evidence backs up the claim that the 21st Century program can help improve outcomes for kids. More than a third of students in the program—36.5 percent—reported improvement in mathematics grades, according to an overview of student data for the 2013-14 school year, published by the U.S. Department of Education. A similar proportion—36.8 percent—saw improvement in English grades, according to the same report.
And some individual programs say they have seen evidence of better student outcomes. For instance, the students who participated in the summer program in Cranston, R.I., saw gains of about 35 percent on a reading and math assessment, Crichton said.
Will the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program really be eliminated?
It’s tough to say at this early stage. Congress had actually considered getting rid of the language in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that authorizes—Congress-speak for “creates"—the program when it wrote the latest version of the law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. But the 21st Community Learning Center program was saved by its fans, including Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., an ally of the president who helped co-found the “Trump caucus” in the House. (Barletta has visited SHINE, which serves children in his district.)
And earlier this month Barletta teamed up with Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., on a letter to Mulvaney, asking him to restore the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.
Photo: Second grader Frank Pranzo builds a large pyramid from plastic cups during a Project SHINE after-school program at the LB Morris Elementary School in Jim Thorpe, Pa., earlier this week. Charles Mostoller for Education Week