The Bush administration acknowledges using the results of what many people view as a controversial study to justify a 40-percent budget cut to the $1 billion program that funds after-school initiatives in K-12 school districts.

The study finds that after-school programs do not improve academic performance, students’ safety, or the number of children left home alone. After-school program advocates say the report, which is based on first-year results of the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) program, is too preliminary to be used as the basis of significant budget cuts and sweeping changes.

If the proposed cuts are approved by Congress, they could have a steep impact on students’ access to technology resources after school hours, some educational technology advocates argue. Many of the after-school programs funded by 21st CCLC incorporate computer-based instruction.

The study, released Feb. 4 and called “When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st-Century Community Learning Centers Program,” is the largest and most rigorous examination to date of school-based after-school programs.

The program, which was authorized by Congress in 1994, opened schools after hours so they could be used more broadly by their communities. In 1998 the program was changed to support only academic activities. Since then, its funding has increased from $40 million to $1 billion. The program now supports after-school programs in about 7,500 rural and inner-city public schools in more than 1,400 communities.

The study was conducted for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. and its partner, Decision Information Resources Inc. ED funded the research along with supplemental funding from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

In the study, researchers examined the characteristics and outcomes of typical programs that were operated in elementary and middle schools. Most programs studied provided academic, enrichment, or recreational activities. Homework help was the most common academic activity.

The findings are based on data collected in the first year of the program from students, parents, teachers, principals, program staff members, and school records. Evaluators collected data on 4,400 middle school students and 1,000 elementary school students and conducted site visits, lasting between two and four days, to all grantees at least once.

“The first-year findings reveal that while 21st-century after-school centers changed where and with whom students spent some of their after-school time and increased parental involvement, they had limited influence on academic performance, no influence on feelings of safety or on the number of ‘latchkey’ children, and some negative influences on behavior,” the report says.

To remedy the problem, the report says “policy makers and program developers need to consider ways to address low student participation and low academic content.” It recommends setting a minimum number of days that students would be required to participate, as well as increasing the academic quality and content of programs.

Instead, the Bush administration has proposed cutting the program’s funding request in 2004 by $400 million.

The president’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2004 explains: “The decrease in the request acknowledges that the program needs some time to address disappointing initial findings from a rigorous evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. The evaluation indicates that the centers funded in the program’s first three years are not providing substantial academic content and do not appear to have a positive impact on student behavior.”

ED spokesman David Thomas confirmed that the study was the reason the budget cuts were proposed. “I think [the Bush administration] wants to find out what works best before putting all sorts of money into it,” he said.

Critics say a 40-percent budget cut will not adequately address the problem.

“I don’t think a funding decrease allows for that at all,” said Jen Rinehart, associate director of the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance. “That justification doesn’t make any sense at all. It seems the administration is in a position where they need to find revenue, and this is a program they don’t like, and they are using that study as an excuse to cut funding.”

Norris Dickard, director of public policy at the Benton Foundation, expressed the same view. The administration’s policy signals the start of what could be a dangerous trend, he said: “using negative program evaluation information to call for significant program cuts.”

John Bailey, ED’s director of educational technology, told attendees of the Consortium for School Networking’s Private Sector Meeting Feb. 25 in Washington, D.C., that in this climate of greater accountability, research findings are becoming increasingly important.

“I think you are seeing a lot more reliance on studies like this from the [Office of Management and Budget]. This budget cut didn’t come from the Department [of Education] necessarily. The OMB did that on [its] own,” he said.

The report finds:

  • Elementary schoolchildren who participated in after-school programs did not have higher grades in most subjects compared with their peers who did not participate. Also, the after-school programs had no measurable impact on homework completion rates.

  • For middle school students, only math grades were slightly higher for after-school program participants than for their peers who did not attend after-school programs. However, African-American and Hispanic children showed the highest grade improvements, as well as less absenteeism and tardiness.

  • Students who attended programs more frequently, both at the middle school and elementary school levels, did not have higher grades compared with students that attended less frequently.

  • After-school programs did not reduce the number of “latchkey” children, or those who are not cared for by parents, adults, or older siblings after school.

  • Nor did the programs increase feelings of safety after school. Also, the study found, middle school participants were more likely than non-participants to have sold drugs, smoked marijuana, or had their property damaged.

On the positive side, parental involvement—such as volunteering or attending open-house meetings—increased among students who attended after-school programs.

Although after-school programs were available to students four to five days a week, most students averaged only two days per week of attendance.

The programs, which were largely run by full-time teachers, also were slow to begin planning to sustain themselves after the 21st-CCLC grant ended. Even among those grantees within months of their grant’s end, sustainability planning was almost nonexistent.

After-school program advocates say the report is based only on first-year data, has a negative bias, and quickly dismisses the benefits of after-school programs.

“We don’t think much of that report. That’s not to say it’s not a good report, it’s just a preliminary report. The figures are from when the [21st CCLC] program was in its infancy,” said Phil Evans, director of communications for a national group called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, which represents more than 2,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, and crime victims.

“The after-school hours are very dangerous for children. It’s the time when youngsters are most likely to commit a crime or be a victim of a crime. It’s the time when they are most likely to experiment with drugs, alcohol, and smoking cigarettes,” Evans said.

He added, “There are good studies that show these programs do, in fact, prevent crime.”

The Benton Foundation’s Dickard said he is concerned about the impact the proposed cuts would have on students’ access to technology after school.

As ed-tech data from the National Center for Education Statistics show, he said, “schools have increasingly been making their computer facilities available in the after-school hours to students who might not otherwise have such access. In many cases, they are open to the wider community. Thus, I find cuts to the after-school program very troubling, especially given proposed cuts to other digital divide programs.”

Policy experts agree with the report’s recommendation of finding ways to improve the 21st CCLC program, but they don’t believe funding cuts are the answer.

“We were incredibly disappointed that the administration chose this study as the basis for deep funding cuts. This is not how the evaluation was supposed to used,” said Rinehart of the Afterschool Alliance. “Normally, when you conduct an evaluation, you look at how you can improve the program. This is taking one study and making a sweeping policy decision on the basis of that one study.”

This school year, the 21st CCLC program is being administered at the state level instead of at the federal level for the first time, as required by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Dee Cox, program manager for the 21st CCLC program in Arkansas, said she was shocked to read about the study and wants to make sure none the grantees in her state make the same mistakes it identifies.

“I definitely see that after-school programs serve a purpose, especially if it’s a [high-] quality program,” Cox said. “We have some excellent programs in our state. We’ve seen some good results.”

Links:

“When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st-Century Community Learning Centers Program”
http://www.ed.gov/pubs/21cent/firstyear

21st-Century Community Learning Centers
http://www.ed.gov/21stcclc

Afterschool Alliance
http://www.afterschoolalliance.org

Benton Foundation
http://www.benton.org

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids
http://www.fightcrime.org