Expert opinion

We all agree — or do we?

by Dorie Turner Nolt

Despite the public's unabashed fervor, and the unmet need and proven effectiveness for after-school programs, some states and the federal government have proposed steep cuts.

Think back to the last time 92% of Americans agreed on something.

That kind of support would surely lead lawmakers from city hall to the halls of Congress to spring into action and create programs that expand access to something that so many Americans agree is worthy. Right?

Or, in the case of after-school programs, it could fall on deaf ears. According to the 2017 PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, 9 in 10 respondents support after-school programs, with 77% voicing strong support. Even broken down by party lines, an overwhelming majority are on board — 84% of Democrats, 70% of Republicans, and 77% of independents. In fact, after-school programs have the broadest base of support among all political groups compared to other school wraparound services like health, dental, and mental health services.

Despite that unabashed fervor, unmet need and proven effectiveness, some states and the federal government have proposed steep cuts to after-school programs. States like Maryland and Kentucky are considering cutting budgets for after-school programs while, for the second year in a row, President Donald Trump has called for federal support for after-school programs to be slashed entirely. (And, notably, the Trump administration’s claim that there is no evidence the 21st Century Community Learning Center program — which supports after-school programs for 2 million children and families across the country — helps students was debunked.)

Those proposed cuts are even though three-quarters of Americans in the PDK poll say schools offering after-school and other wraparound services for students are justified in seeking additional public funding to pay for them.

These are programs that help close the achievement gaps for minority and low-income students, connect children in rural areas to a larger world, introduce students to STEM fields, promote healthy lifestyles and ensure children have the skills necessary to be successful in the 21st century workforce. And despite the ample evidence of success with after-school programs, for every one of the 10 million children in an after-school program, two are waiting for access, according to the Afterschool Alliance.

Thankfully, Congress has largely ignored the president’s wishes. And some states like California and Illinois are increasing dollars spent on after-school programs, while other states are getting creative with policy proposals to spend marijuana revenue or funding for stemming the opioid crisis on prevention measures like after-school programs.

Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, says these programs have long enjoyed high levels of public support because they provide boosts to students, families and communities.

“These programs give parents peace of mind that their kids are supervised and learning during the sometimes-perilous hours after the school day ends and before parents get home from their jobs. And they inspire students to learn by providing homework help, opportunities for hands-on STEM learning and exposure to music, arts, mentors and much more,” Grant said. “In our experience, the more people have the chance to see after-school programs up close — and the more they talk to the children who attend them and their parents or family members — the stronger their support for after-school programs becomes.”

Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, says these programs have long enjoyed high levels of public support because they provide boosts to students, families and communities.

What’s more, the programs level the playing field for low-income and underserved students. By the time a low-income student is in middle school, her wealthy peers will have had 6,000 hours more of out-of-school enrichment because their parents can afford it, according to the STEM Next Opportunity Fund, which is working to expand after-school STEM programs across the country. That five-year gap in exposure to after-school and summer learning not only perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty, it also means our country loses the next Sonia Sotomayor or Oprah Winfrey.

Don’t take my word for it. After-School All-Stars, which runs free programs across the country, has a series of video testimonials from students whose lives have been changed because of their experience in an All-Star after-school program — students like Olivia, Ashley, and Juan. Yet even with programs like this and others, 15 million school-age children are on their own after school. We need more after-school programming, not less, and the polling shows the public feels the same way.

“Simply, the school day is not enough. We need to invest in after-school programs to broaden opportunities for the young people who will be our future engineers, lab technicians, nurses and more,” said Ron Ottinger, who runs STEM Next.

Dorie Turner Nolt

Dorie Turner Nolt is senior vice president of education, Strategies 360, Washington, D.C. 

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