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Threatened But Still Standing: The Federal Program for After-School, Summer Learning

Despite Trump’s attempts to eliminate it, bipartisan support persists.

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Three times, the Trump administration has tried to ax federal funding for after-school and summer learning programs, and three times Congress has responded by adding more money to the pot.

Most recently, the U.S. House, where Democrats hold a majority, approved a $100 million increase for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative—the primary source of federal funds for local after-school and summer learning programs. That line item, which stills needs approval from the Republican-led Senate, would primarily support activities during the 2020-21 school year.

While the after-school program makes up a small slice of spending by the U.S. Department of Education ($1.2 billion of the federal agency’s discretionary budget of $71 billion in 2019), advocates say it is a critical source of funds for local programs.

Eliminating the program “would cause catastrophic harm to students, families, schools, and communities across the nation, and it would diminish our future workforce and harm our economy,” said Jodi Grant, the executive director of the Afterschool Alliance in a statement on President Trump’s latest budget proposal.

More than 1.7 million students in 2019 participated in after-school and summer learning programs supported by the federal aid, according to the Alliance, a national advocacy group. Examples range from a summer science camp in Massachusetts, to an after-school enrichment program in Idaho.

The Trump administration is proposing to abolish 29 Education Department programs in its latest budget request, including not only the 21st Century program, but also explicit funding for arts education, civics education, and gifted and talented funding, to name a few.

The rationale for eliminating those programs is that they have “achieved their original purpose, duplicate other programs, are narrowly focused, or are unable to demonstrate effectiveness,” according to the department, led by Secretary Betsy DeVos. In the case of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, the department says the program “lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives, such as improving student achievement.”

Education Week’s Alyson Klein examined the impact of the proposed cuts after the administration’s last budget proposal. It’s worth noting that President Trump isn’t the first chief executive to put the program’s funding in his crosshairs. For example, President Barack Obama in 2016 proposed to cut the 21st Century Community Learning Centers budget by $167 million.

Here’s how the federal program works: Each state receives a share of federal funds based on its number of low-income students. States distribute the money to local school districts and community organizations that operate after-school and summer learning programs.

The fact that the program reaches communities in every part of the country is likely part of the reason why it has retained bipartisan support in Congress. Programs in every congressional district would be impacted should the funds be reduced or eliminated. You can view a state-by-state breakdown of funding and students served here.

The endurance of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program also fits a broader pattern that’s emerged in the dynamic between Congress and the White House: Despite repeated attempts by the Trump administration to significantly slash education spending, Congress has resisted. Indeed, Congress has consistently funded the Education Department at levels well above those proposed by the president, even before Democrats regained control of the House earlier this year.

The fiscal 2020 spending bill the House approved in May would provide $76 billion for the Education Department, compared with the Trump request of $64 billion, as Education Week reported. The Senate has yet to take action on a spending bill for the department.

Digging Into Programs in Your Community

For education reporters, summer is a good time to learn more about programs in your community that are supported by the federal aid. Not all programs are high quality, researchers warn, and different programs often have different goals (e.g. to improve academic performance, promote social-emotional development, or develop job skills).

WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glen recently profiled a summer program aimed at getting girls involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at an early age. Similarly, EdSource’s Sydney Johnson visited a program in California where middle school students are learning to write code to control a space satellite.

California is one of at least seven states that provides funding for after-school and summer learning programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nationally, state funds make up just 3 percent of funding for after-school programs, according to the Afterschool Alliance. The vast majority of costs (70 percent) are covered by tuition and fees paid by families.

But it’s programs that primarily serve low- and middle-income children that are likely to rely most heavily on public funds at the federal, state, and local levels, such as one Indianapolis summer program recently profiled by Chalkbeat’s Erica Irish. The popularity of that program has outgrown its funding, leaving more than 150 on a waiting list this summer, she reports.

And in New York City, summer camps for middle school students were left scrambling for staff and space recently after the city waited until just weeks before their scheduled start to fund the programs.

If you’re a reporter looking to learn more about programs in your community, check out this resource from the Afterschool Alliance, which provides state-by-state statistics, developments, and resources. Consider exploring how local programs are funded. Talk to students and their families to learn more about their experiences. Also, ask about the explicit goals of the program, including the desired outcomes for students, and how its success (or lack thereof) should be judged.

You can also see how your state is addressing after-school learning under the newly-implemented federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

What Research Says

In addition to providing students with a safe place to go after school and during the summer, advocates say that high-quality programs have positive effects on academic and behavioral outcomes of students who participate.

While it’s impossible to speak to the effectiveness of the entire field, a 2017 research review by the RAND Corporation concluded that, when designed and implemented well, after-school and summer programs can provide multiple benefits to families and students. Depending on the design and purpose of the program, those benefits can include improvements in academic achievement, behavior, and social development. However, the researchers noted that benefits vary greatly based on the quality of the program, as measured by staff qualifications, instructor-child interactions, and materials used.

So, what about programs supported by the 21st Century Community Learning Centers dollars?

In 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog, provided detailed analysis of relevant research as part of a broader evaluation of the federal program. The research “suggests that the 21st Century program is effective in improving students’ behavioral outcomes, such as school-day attendance and reduced disciplinary incidents, more often than their academic outcomes,” the GAO said. For math achievement, the GAO found uneven outcomes, depending on the state. For example, in Virginia and Washington, there were no observable improvements in math test scores for participants, whereas evaluations in Texas and New Jersey did show higher scores. As for reading, no statewide evaluation examined showed gains in test scores from participants.

The GAO offered an overall cautionary note about impacts on student behavior or academics: “High-quality research on the effectiveness of this program is very limited due to several factors, including difficulty determining whether a change in students’ outcomes results from their participation in a 21st Century program or from other factors, such as interventions during the school day.”

The report also made a series of recommendations for strengthening the program, including improving performance measures for behavioral outcomes and having the U.S. Department of Education take steps to better ensure the reliability of state-reported data.

Meanwhile, a report from The Wallace Foundation identified more than 60 afterschool programs showing one or more improved outcomes for students. (The Wallace Foundation is a funder of the Education Writers Association.)