12‐​Hour School Days? Why Government Should Leave Afterschool Arrangements to Parents

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In the 2000 State of the Union Address, President Clinton proposed the largest‐​ever federal expenditure on afterschool programs, saying, “Let’s double our investments in afterschool and summer school programs, which boost achievement and keep people off the streets and out of trouble.” Supporters of afterschool programs include child care professionals who believe young children need more supervision, educators who believe children need more academic instruction, and politicians who believe teens need more structured afterschool activities. Such beliefs, however, reflect a misunderstanding of important facts.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Bureau of the Census, and the National Child Care Survey, few children spend time unsupervised. Research indicates that only 2 percent of children aged 5 through 12 regularly care for themselves after school. In addition, the best available evidence indicates that the supply of afterschool programs far exceeds the demand for them. The National Study of Before‐ and After‐​School Programs found a surplus of afterschool programs nationwide, with enrollments averaging only 59 percent of capacity. Finally, evidence does not support the contention that opening more afterschool programs will boost academic achievement or reduce delinquency.

The administration’s request to fund afterschool programs is only a small part of a plan to expand the role of public schools. For example, the centerpiece of the administration’s afterschool proposal is $1 billion for the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center program. The program’s purpose is to turn public schools into “learning centers” that, in addition to regular education, provide afterschool care and at least four other services ranging from parent training and daycare to job training and health programs. Funding for afterschool programs is a down payment on a more expansive government‐​run school system.

Given the widely acknowledged failure of many government schools to carry out their primary duty–to educate students–the administration’s proposal for expanding the schools’ responsibilities is exactly the wrong approach. Instead of funding the expansion of government schools, state legislators should adopt universal tuition tax credits that would give parents full latitude to select their children’s schools, including independent schools, with or without afterschool programs. Finally, Congress should cease funding afterschool programs.

Darcy Ann Olsen

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy at the Cato Institute.