For the third straight year, President Trump has proposed reducing the U.S. Department of Education’s budget. For the 2020 fiscal year, the administration is proposing a $7 billion cut, about 10 percent of the total budget.
To be fair, the budget doesn’t propose cuts across the board. The administration wants to invest more in new school safety grant programs, federal charter school grants, the innovation and research fund, as well as $50 million for a Title I pilot program that would allow districts more flexibility to use Title I dollars. At face value, the proposed increases are worth consideration, but increasing these investments at the cost of reducing others in programs that have demonstrated positive results is not only short sighted, but disproportionately affects poor, black, and Hispanic students.
One of the programs on the chopping block is the 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant Program which supports after-school programming. According to the Afterschool Alliance, it is a $1.1 billion program that serves 1,685,000 students nationwide and is the only federally funded afterschool and summer school program. In Charleston County alone, the school district manages 10 of these grants while partner organizations like Wings for Kids and Charleston Promise Neighborhood manage five others. In total, 15 of these grant programs are being implemented in Charleston County, serving an estimated 1,500 elementary school students each school day from dismissal to 6 p.m., 35 weeks a year. And that doesn’t even include summer school.
(Full disclosure: I manage the 21st Century Community Learning programs for Charleston County School District.)
Those who do not fully understand the benefits of these programs routinely write them off as a babysitting service or claim there is little or no data to support the impact of the programs. In truth, these programs serves our most needy, underserved students who are predominantly poor, black, or Hispanic. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that these programs not only improve academic outcomes, but inspire kids to learn, help them make better choices, and improve their attendance and class participation.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s website, students who regularly attend a 21st Century Afterschool Program see positive impacts. Close to half the students improve their math and language skills, two thirds improve their homework completion and three-in-five improve their behavior in class. A growing body of research is available to anyone interested in making policy decisions based on data, not political expediency or sound bites. A meta-analysis was published in the Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, and the weight of the evidence demonstrates that after-school programs can and do make a positive difference in students’ achievement, attendance, and conduct. In a paper published in the journal Child Development, research shows that when high quality early education is coupled with high quality after-school programs, there are positive outcomes academically and socially. According to a 2002 study by the Rose Institute of Claremont-McKenna College, for every $1 invested in after-school programs, $3 are saved by increasing kids’ earning potential, improving kids’ performance at school, and reducing crime and welfare costs.
If this grant program were eliminated here in Charleston, it would have a significant impact on our families, and the trickle down effects would be substantial. Roughly 1,500 students would no longer have access to safe, structured, high quality after-school care. Parents who rely on these services would have to reorganize work schedules, impacting their employers as well. Additionally, after-school programs also help sustain the student enrichment industry which sustains several small businesses here in Charleston that provide important opportunities such as chess, soccer, engineering, karate, coding, art, dance, and robotics just to name a few.
While the president is calling for the elimination of this program, the House and Senate still have to take action on their own spending bills. The education budget is part of a larger appropriations bill that will have its own vigorous debate. Perhaps it is too much to ask for, but it is my hope that President Trump and Secretary Betsy DeVos look at the data and reconsider this poor decision. Couple this decision with the president’s rhetoric on immigration and health care as well as the proposed cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and the tax cuts passed in 2017, it is fair to wonder: Who is this administration fighting for? I hope Senators Scott and Graham, Majority Whip Clyburn, and Rep. Cunningham will fight for this program and stand up for the families of South Carolina.
Jason Sakran is founder and co-owner of Bon Banh Mi Southeast Asian Kitchen as well as director for Expanded Learning (Kaleidoscope) for Charleston County School District. His opinions do not reflect nor represent the Charleston County School District in any capacity.