By Joshua Benton
After-school programs – touted as a way to bring up test scores and keep children out of trouble – do little to help kids academically, according to a new federal study released Monday. They might even encourage bad behavior.
Partially as a result of the study’s findings, the Bush administration is asking Congress to cut funding for after-school programs by 40 percent.
“Thanks to this study, we found areas where we can improve,” said Eugene Hickok, U.S. undersecretary of education.
The study follows one of the biggest victories for promoters of after-school programs. In November, California voters approved a ballot initiative backed by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger that committed $550 million a year to after-school programs.
Supporters of after-school programs criticized the study, saying the programs had not had enough time to show gains.
“Instead of cutting funding for after-school programs, let’s improve the quality and cut crime,” said Sanford Newman, president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a group that believes after-school programs can keep children out of mischief.
More than 60 mostly urban Texas school districts receive federal after-school grants, including Dallas, Irving and Fort Worth. The program, called 21st Century Community Learning Centers, began in 1994 and has grown rapidly: from $40 million in fiscal year 1998 to $1 billion in fiscal year 2002.
The study, which its authors say is the most comprehensive of its kind, examined 96 after-school programs and more than 5,000 elementary and middle school students. Among the findings:
*The programs had minimal impact on test scores and grades. Students in after-school programs had reading test scores no better than similar students who stayed away from the programs. School grades were also largely unchanged, and students were no more likely to do their homework than their peers.
*After-school programs did nothing to decrease the number of “latchkey children,” who are home alone after school. They did decrease the number of children left in the care of older siblings.
*Students in after-school programs did not report feeling safer than their peers. In fact, students in the programs were more likely to have sold or smoked marijuana than students not in programs.
Students who use the programs don’t do so often, the report said. Most attended the programs less than twice a week, which may have limited their effectiveness.
The report also showed that middle school students in the after-school programs saw slight improvements in math grades, and minority students saw larger grade improvements than whites. And after-school programs proved to be a good way to get parents involved in their children’s education. Parents were more likely to volunteer at their child’s school and help children with homework.
President Bush, in the $2.2 trillion budget submitted Monday to Congress, is asking that funding for the 21st century centers be cut from $1 billion to $600 million. That’s despite an overall $2.8 billion increase in his request for education funding, the largest dollar increase of any domestic agency.