It’s no secret that the current administration’s highest funding priorities don’t include the Department of Education. President Trump signaled as much in choosing Betsy DeVos to head the department. Her views on public schools were well-known long before her appointment and are summarized in her 2015 comment that public schools are "a dead end."

For those who feel public schools are worth saving, the department’s announcement earlier in March that it was further slashing the education budget after two years of earlier cuts was troubling. With the rationale that it was eliminating funding for "programs that have achieved their original purpose, duplicate other programs, are narrowly focused or are unable to demonstrate effectiveness," the department proposed eliminating 29 programs, by far the largest being "21st Century Learning Centers."

The 21st Century Learning Centers Mission

The 21st Century Learning Centers program, started in 1998, has supported after-school programs for children and their families living in what are described as "high-poverty areas."

The announced intention of the program has always been to improve academic performance and provide enrichment activities, but it’s also been understood that another purpose was to provide kids with a safe place to stay, since many live in areas with well-known social hazards and are "latch-key" kids who would otherwise remain unsupervised until working parents return home.

Has the Program Worked?

If one of the criteria for program termination is an "inability to achieve effectiveness," the 21st Century Learning Centers program could be a candidate. There have been questions about how well the program helps students improve academic performance almost from the program’s beginning, especially among conservatives.

David Muhlhausen, writing in The Daily Signal, for example, asserts that "rigorous scientific evidence" concludes that the program is not just ineffective, but "harms children." The Education Department’s March 2019 final report on the program concludes a little less drastically that, "Research on the effects of the after-school programs has been inconclusive."

There’s room for doubt about these conclusions, however. When I clicked on Muhlhausen’s "rigorous scientific evidence" showing these programs were actually bad for children, I was directed to a Congressional Ways and Means Committee report on Muhlhausen’s own testimony before that committee, not to objective third-party data that would qualify as evidence.

I also came up with a "page not found," so I can’t say with certainty that Muhlhausen’s testimony wouldn’t have proved his point, although it’s somewhat unusual for a writer to cite his own testimony as "rigorous scientific evidence" rather than the evidence itself.

Also, contradicting the Department of Education’s final report are a number of earlier studies, among them, for example, an extensive 2012 University of Tennessee report that compared outcomes for control groups with students participating in the program. It found that overall the program did improve student outcomes — in direct contradiction to the Department of Education’s final report — and it also found that children in the program felt "safer."

One Teacher’s Response to This Disagreement

To almost everyone’s dismay, whether their politics lean left, right or center, Americans currently find themselves in an era of "fake news," where scientific reports from what were formerly unquestioned sources (including the Department of Education) are dismissed as the biased or intentionally dishonest conclusions of partisans.

But, also as a former teacher, I find something missing from the Department of Education’s final report that was included in every other report I read, notably that students in the program felt "safer." I spent a year teaching after-school in a similar program. Until you participate in one, it’s hard to even imagine the degree of dysfunction in the lives of children blandly described as being from "high-poverty areas."

No, it’s not just income. These kids are from badly damaged, often dangerous social environments offering a degree of chaos that many have internalized.

My students tore apart bleachers in the gym and turned basketball practice into a war of shoving, pushing and throwing basketballs at each other. Some days they threw them at me. Or refused to communicate at all.

But while they were giving their novice teacher a hard time, they also weren’t in any danger. They were safe.

My first couple of months in the program, I was horrified. Relatively little actual teaching or helping with homework could go on in such an environment — which, however, gradually did get a little better once the students decided I wasn’t necessarily (only possibly) the enemy.

But, my view is that what my program and all similar programs do provide is a degree of safety and that this is critically important. These children, most with working parents who can’t afford even minimal after-school childcare, are now in a safe environment with adult supervision.

Significantly, in my view, the Department of Education doesn’t mention this, which alone justifies keeping these learning centers funded, even if, as some contend, learning outcomes aren’t improved. If they are, as most other studies have concluded, that’s great — it’s a bonus.