President Trump’s budget would zero out funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, an after-school program aimed at improving academic outcomes. The budget blueprint says the 21st Century program “lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives.” That’s an understatement. As my former colleague David Muhlhausen has detailed, the Education Department sponsored a multi-site experimental evaluation of the 21st Century program. The final results, published in 2005, showed basically no effect on academic outcomes and negative effects on child behavior.
A lobbying coalition of academics, bureaucrats, and school providers has formed around the 21st Century program, and its supporters quickly moved to disparage the gold-standard evaluation. They offered the familiar excuses common to other program failures, including a perennial favorite: “We believe [insert name of program] is much more effective now than at the time it was evaluated.” Since evaluations are rarely conducted on the fly, that excuse can be recycled ad infinitum. Nevertheless, a New York Times “fact check” bought into the coalition’s storyline, dismissing the gold-standard evaluation as “early research” and then proceeding to cite state-level studies that do not use random-assignment methodology. The purported test-score gains even in these non-experimental studies were unimpressive.
Similarly, an article for Time claims “several studies” support after-school programs, but none is an actual test of the 21st Century program’s effectiveness. For example, the Education Department says that 30 to 40 percent of participants improved their math and English grades during the year, but there is no mention of how any control group performed. (The New York Times “fact check” also cites this data but misreports it as a 30 to 40 percent improvement in grades.) The Time article goes on to cite studies that say it is bad for children to go hungry, which is not exactly the same question as whether after-school programs are effective!
Does all of this mean that after-school care is never helpful to anyone? Of course not. Research in this area should and will continue. Perhaps there are targeted ways in which after-school care could help especially vulnerable kids. The 21st Century program, however, is not a good use of limited resources. Its funding should be either returned to the taxpayers or redirected toward programs with demonstrated effectiveness. More broadly, a $559 billion deficit means the government must set very careful priorities with its spending. If we cannot eliminate even a small program that failed its own government evaluation, then there is little reason to believe the government will ever get those priorities straight.