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Why Defunding After-School Programs Will Widen the Opportunity Gap

Kids from the Anaheim Achieves after-school program are waiting to receive a real-life lesson in engineering and technology.Kids from the Anaheim Achieves after-school program are waiting to receive a real-life lesson in engineering and technology.
Kids from the Anaheim Achieves after-school program are waiting to receive a real-life lesson in engineering and technology. Secretary Betsy DeVos's budget proposal aims to cut funding to such programs but this will only widen an existing opportunity gap in education.Leonard Ortiz—Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

For the third consecutive year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration have proposed to end federal funding for after-school programs—a budget cut that could directly impact nearly two million children across the country. Such a cut would not only disproportionately impact young people from underserved communities, but would also worsen the existing opportunity gap in education.

High-quality after-school programs—which consistently offer multi-faceted academic, social-emotional, and behavioral supports—can help students retain and develop concepts they learn in the classroom through academic enrichment sessions led by dedicated mentors and tutors. Moreover, they can ensure students have the chance to realize their professional aspirations, whether through field trips to local businesses or hands-on science experiments. And they represent a lifeline for students who are otherwise left unsupervised after the final bell rings: These programs offer healthy meals, organized physical activity, and a network of supportive staff to help children navigate the struggles they may face outside the classroom.

Yet, students in more affluent communities have the information and resources to more easily access such experiences. Meanwhile, their lower-income peers—grappling with financial, transportation, and other access barriers—are left without an opportunity to do the same. Students from lower-income families are three times less likely to participate in after-school sports, clubs, and other critical enrichment activities. Compared to a child in poverty, middle-income students will have spent 3,060 more hours in after-school and extra-curricular programs by the sixth grade. And for every child in an after-school program, two others do not have that same offering in their communities.

If we want to give all kids in this country a chance to flourish, the Trump Administration must accept that the existing federal funding for after-school programs, about $1.2 billion, is critical to bridging that gap. After-school programs can help level the playing field for students as early as kindergarten, leading to higher grades, and increased engagement in the classroom.

And while the Trump administration claims there is no data that supports after-school programs’ effectiveness, more than 60 after-school programs across the country have met the most rigorous standard of evidence of impact set by the Every Student Succeeds Act, demonstrating gains in attendance and enrollment, math and science achievement, and promotion and graduation rates.

This proposal to cut funding also contrasts public opinion. According to a survey by the Afterschool Alliance, an advocacy group focused on expanding access to high-quality after-school programs, 89% of surveyed adults affirmed the value of these programs. In addition, seven in 10 adults polled also explicitly oppose funding cuts to after-school programs—as did 79% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans who participated in the survey.

Instead of seeking to cut federal funding for after-school programs, the Trump administration should increase its investment. From a policy and budget perspective, after-school programs represent a twofer: High-quality after-school programs not only promote positive academic and social-emotional outcomes for kids but they also offer financial relief for families by providing free or low-cost child care during the after-school hours.

All children need a place that not only keeps them safe but provides them with opportunities for growth and positive development. If the Trump Administration is serious about developing a budget that “puts students first,” as DeVos has said, then it should commit to closing—rather than widening—the opportunity gap in education.

Nancy Deutsch is the director of Youth-Nex, the University of Virginia’s Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, and a nationally recognized after-school expert.