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Elementary school students clap and spell words after school. Credit: Imani Khayyam

At 3 p.m. when most schools let out, some kids will stay back to attend an after-school program, some will be picked up by parents, relatives or paid caregivers to be taken home or to a soccer or swim class, and some others will hang out, on a street corner, or in the playground nearby with friends, or in an empty home. If you are a working parent with regular office hours, the group that your child belongs to depends on how much you can afford to pay for after-school care.

Unfortunately, the free, public part of education ends when the bell sounds.

Turns out that most of those who can’t afford to pay private school tuition can’t dole out funds for after-school programs either. In 2016, the online education news outlet Chalkbeat reported that only 18 percent of children nationally are served by before- and after-school programs. Many have no choice but to leave children in settings that won’t teach them skills that will help them get to college or snag a high-paying job.

The federal government could help. Students’ social and economic needs don’t end in the afternoon, and neither should the safety net that public schools provide. With the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos so eager to pass out school vouchers like Halloween candy, “to choose the learning environment that is right,” why isn’t there a voucher scheme for after-school programs?

The duration of school days is a vestige of a past when women were expected to stay at home, and able to pick their children up from school to take them back home. It’s long past time schools recognized that 61.1 percent of married couples, both parents work, and offered after-school programs that meet their demands. School hours — typically between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. — simply don’t match a 9 to 5 workday, let alone the more intensive days that come with certain kinds of jobs. What are parents to do with their kids in those in-between hours?

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If parents don’t want their child to get after-school lessons from the streets or television, they are forced to pay for quality childcare and afterschool programs. There’s not much wiggle room for parents, and aftercare providers, keenly aware of this, charge accordingly.

According to a 2013 report by the U.S. Census, childcare costs rose 59 percent between 1985 and 2011 while family income stayed constant, meaning families paid a greater share of their income for childcare.

There is wide variability in what parents pay for childcare between different states. For instance, parents in Washington, D.C., currently pay roughly $3000 per month while those in Mississippi pay roughly $665 per month, according to a 2018 report published by Business Broker Network, an online brokerage for businesses that has a stake in franchising childcare facilities.

Many families can’t keep pace with the rising price of after-school care and lean on siblings, extended family members, friends and family-friendly employers to fill the gap. Some instruct their children to go to unsupervised environments like libraries, playgrounds or shopping malls until they get off of work.

“In 2004, the parents of 15.3 million children said they would enroll their child in an afterschool program if one were available,” according to findings in the 2014 America After 3PM study from the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to filling out-of-school time with quality options. “[T]oday that number stands at 19.4 million children. And, while the number of children alone and unsupervised after school has decreased over the last 10 years, there are still 11.3 million children headed for an unsupervised environment after the last school bell rings.”

The need for after-school care is reflected in the rising number of people who use it. However, far too many can’t. Public schools need to step up.

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There are still 11.3 million children headed for an unsupervised environment after the last school bell rings.

In its report, the Afterschool Alliance cited not having safe, reliable transportation as a major reason many parents don’t enroll their children in a program. And even if parents possess a car, some towns don’t offer childcare. A childcare desert is a term that refers to neighborhoods that are either lacking any childcare options or have so few childcare providers that there are more than three children for every licensed childcare slot. As with the cost of after-school care, there’s great variability among states with regards to availability. For instance, approximately 40 percent of the residents of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina live in a childcare desert, compared to Minnesota, where only about 25 percent of residents do, according to a 2018 report from the think tank the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Meanwhile, wealthy families are spending more on extracurricular activities for their kids, who are outpacing their peers who can’t afford these programs. Some children are learning to code while others are being “watched” by a relative or a neighbor. During the 2013-14 academic year in the nation’s capital, where a staggering 75 percent of the students are deemed economically disadvantaged, the five wealthiest parent-teacher associations (PTA) raised a total of over $2.9 million for schools located mostly in the mainly white, affluent northwest section of the city, according to the CAP report. As the institutional voice of parents in a school, PTAs also raise funds for projects that the members and principal deem important for the school.

Not surprisingly, PTAs in low-income schools would like the same afterschool programs as upper-income associations, but their members don’t have the resources to contribute at the levels of their well-heeled peers. The CAP report also found: “Meanwhile, in the district’s highest-poverty schools — mostly located in Southeast Washington — schools had to pay for some of these same programs with public dollars, leaving less funding for other resources, staffing, or education or enrichment activities.”

If there was ever something families needed a federal safety net for, it is for after-school programs. The federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, which helps states fund some out-of-school initiatives including afterschool programs, is guaranteed in the budget through 2019. The proposed Trump-DeVos FY19 budget would eliminate the program entirely as part of $7.1 billion in suggested cuts to the Department of Education, causing 1.6 million children across the country to lose programs, some free, the funding currently subsidizes. Even if the grant program continues, it’s a drop in the bucket for what states really need to meet the needs of families.

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The federal government’s budget proposal recommends eliminating the program entirely, due to what it has deemed lackluster progress in improving proficiency in reading or math, as well as low, irregular participation rates based upon a curated group of unfavorable studies.

School hours — typically between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. — simply don’t match a 9 to 5 workday.

“Research shows quite clearly that children feel safer when they can be in such programs and their parents overwhelmingly say these programs help them keep their jobs, which is pretty much what these programs were originally intended to do,” wrote University of Georgia professors Paula Schwanenflugel and Nancy Flanagan in the magazine Psychology Today. They also cited research on the educational benefits of afterschool programs, as well as their limitations. Regardless of how the academic strength of after-school programs is measured, they certainly come with a host of other benefits: Parents can pick their children up later in the day, kids often get a meal through the program, and children are monitored in safe facilities during the high-crime hours of the afternoon.

Ironically, the U.S. Education Secretary’s wish of a large, national voucher-based K-12 school program, which she failed to compel legislators from her own party to put into the budget, could ultimately be reintroduced as means to give low-income families after-school options. Because there isn’t a centralized system or district managing after-school programs and care, families need a flexible way to select and pay for services that meet their needs. A voucher system for after-school care makes sense than for K-12 schools.

In the case of childcare deserts, there is not only a need for quality, but also quantity. The possibility of making money will inspire entrepreneurs to set up after-care facilities in the childcare deserts.

Unless Secretary DeVos wants to personally watch the millions of children who will lose their afterschool placements because of her recommended budget cuts, she should increase the budget for after-school programs with a voucher program that makes sense. That would give hardworking families the choices they actually want and need.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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