Kids are struggling. Why isn’t Congress scaling what works to help them?

A smiling young boy holds up a paper lightbulb that he has colored and cut out.
A Doyle-Ryder elementary student proudly displays his colorful lightbulb created for Lights On Afterschool. Photo: Jenifer Veloso

The following opinion piece by Ridgway White, president and CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, was first published by The Hill on Oct. 29, 2023 and is reposted here with permission.

From striking workers to politicians sparring over spending, adults are confronting systems, demanding to be heard and calling for change. Kids, too, are reaching their breaking points, as evidenced by rising school absences, lower test scores, mental health struggles and so much more.

Kids don’t need a picket line to walk or a megaphone to amplify the issues they face. Their hurts, fears and insecurities are reflected in these well-documented trends. As loud and clear as a school bell, the data tells a story that is anything but encouraging. It begs the question, why isn’t more being done to help our young people regain what they’ve lost? And, why not scale up what we know works: connecting youths to caring adults; collaborating and partnering across organizations to better allocate resources; and equipping young people with the skills and knowledge they need for life?

These simple approaches are the foundation of afterschool programs. Whether students are into music, art, sports or STEM, afterschool programs provide spaces for them to explore what they’re passionate about — in the company of caring adults.

Programs are constantly improving the activities and offerings they provide by applying what they’re learning from research and evaluation. Especially in this post-pandemic environment, accelerating students’ academic growth and supporting their well-being through homework help, STEM learning opportunities, physical activities and the like have been a major focus. In a recent survey of parents in my home state of Michigan, afterschool scored a 98 percent satisfaction rating. For every child in afterschool in the Great Lakes State, the survey noted four more would participate if a program were available.

Michigan is not alone. Across the nation, demand among parents for afterschool programs exceeds supply. Survey data collected over the past 15 years on the impacts of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program — the only dedicated stream of federal funding for afterschool — showcases why demand persists. Among students who participated in the program, millions earned higher math grades, demonstrated behavioral improvements, and posted gains in homework completion and class participation.

Yet, millions more families who could benefit are stuck on the sidelines.

Without greater investments in scaling afterschool programs, capacity issues will continue to be an Achilles’ heel for the field. While Congress dedicated a small percentage of pandemic relief funds to states for afterschool and summer learning programs — a first, and welcome news for the field — the funding was too small and time-limited to have a sizeable and sustained impact. Distribution was uneven, varying from state to state, and did not always take into account lessons learned from the pandemic.

In short, when the world all but shut down in early 2020, priorities at all levels of government were reordered, resources deployed in new ways and delivery systems revamped. Education systems were rocked and ill-prepared to pivot from in-person to virtual learning. So where did families turn? Afterschool programs.

With access to critical resources through existing partnerships and an ability to mobilize quickly to distribute them where needed, afterschool programs saved the day. In state after state, they responded to calls from elected officials with a sense of urgency, mission and determination.

As communities and parents celebrated Lights On Afterschool, the Empire State Building in Times Square and other public venues shined in support of afterschool programs. And this year’s day of awareness coincides with the 25th anniversary of the nation’s flagship afterschool program, 21st CCLC. Let’s move forward together to provide the support families need and recognize the value of afterschool programs.

Relationships forged by afterschool programs over the past quarter-century and supported by the 21st CCLC program have been life-sustaining for young people and their families. They also have contributed immensely to the economic strength of their communities.

Time is of the essence. We know kids suffer when adults in Washington can’t get along, but we also know support for kids and afterschool bridges the aisle. So let’s act now to provide more funding for afterschool and scale what works.