February 28, 2008

CONGRESS MUST PROTECT THE 21ST CENTURY COMMUNITY LEARNING CENTERS INITIATIVE

Mr. President, I rise today to express my support for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) initiative, the only federal funding source dedicated to supporting successful afterschool programs around the country.  This program is critical to our children's and our economy's success.

For many American families, it is necessary for both parents to work outside the home, and these families face true challenges in finding affordable child care services.    This is a problem not only for parents of infants and toddlers too young to go to school, but also for parents of school-age children who would otherwise be left unsupervised in those critical hours between the end of the school day and the end of the workday. In Maryland, 25 percent of children in grades K-12 are responsible for taking care of themselves after school. Studies show that millions of children around our nation are left on their own after school to devastating effects.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have concluded that two-thirds of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to out-of-school activities, especially during the summer months.  This unequal access creates a gap that begins in elementary school and accumulates over the years.  It results in unequal placements in college preparatory tracks and increases the chance that children from low-income families will drop out of high school.

The hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. are the peak hours for juvenile crime and experimentation with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex. Teens who do not participate in afterschool programs are nearly three times more likely to skip classes than teens who do participate. They are also three times more likely to engage in risky and self-destructive behaviors. 

Parents who have difficulty securing reliable afterschool care miss an average of eight days of work per year, and studies have shown that decreased worker productivity related to parental concerns about after-school care costs businesses up to $300 billion each year.

Recognizing the benefits of quality afterschool activities, Congress created the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, which provides states with grant money to facilitate their efforts to provide children with quality after-school social, academic and other enrichment activities.  The program's results have been dramatic.

In the 2004-2005 school year, 59 percent of regular attendees attained federal proficiency levels or better in reading and language arts and 54 percent of regular attendees attained federal proficiency levels or better in math.  Teachers reported that a majority of participating students improved in every category of behavior. The categories with the highest percentages of student improvement were academic performance, completing homework to the teacher's satisfaction, class participation, and turning in homework on time.

A study conducted in Maryland's Anne Arundel County school district revealed that CCLC participants missed fewer days in school and achieved higher proficiency ratings in reading and math. Also, teachers perceived increases in students' overall achievement in school and their confidence in learning.  Children attending 23 or more days of Maryland's After School Opportunity Fund Program showed greater gains on such measures as commitment to education and academic performance, and a reduction in delinquency.  

According to a 2005 Manhattan Institute study, only one-third of American high school graduates are  prepared for college.   Our students are falling further behind in math, science, engineering and other areas critical for success in the 21st century economy.  The hours between 3 and 6 p.m. do not need to be peak hours for juvenile crime and dangerous experimentation. The afterschool hours can be and must be a time when our kids learn new skills, develop relationships with caring adults and prepare for the future.

One program in Marriotsville, Maryland is doing just that.  In a reversal of roles, tech savvy students at Marriotts Ridge High School offer afterschool instruction in Photoshop, game design, web design, Microsoft Office and other programs to members of the community.  The principal has raved about walking down his school's halls and seeing his students conduct workshops for individuals ranging from middle-schoolers through senior citizens.  How impressive that these students are given the opportunity to master this technology and then develop the confidence and leadership necessary to teach it to others.  What a benefit to these students and to that Maryland community!

So I was extremely disappointed, as were many of my colleagues, to see that President Bush's Fiscal Year 2009 budget proposal cuts funding for 21st Century Community Learning Centers by $ 300 million next year.  If his proposal were enacted, 300,000 students nationwide would lose access to afterschool programs.  Maryland alone would lose one-third of its funding, which would translate to a loss of services for 5,000 children. 

The President also wants to turn the grant program into a voucher program.  Currently, states review programs in a thorough, competitive process and award multi-year funding to the best proposals.  These long-term grants allow programs to plan, grow, develop partnerships, and hire quality staff.  Parents are able to choose among various programs for their children.  By contrast, a voucher program would give the money to parents rather than the states, eliminating the funding stability that is so critical to developing high quality programs.

The President's proposal is unwise in two respects.  In the short-term, it would eliminate many parents' access to after-school care.  In the long-term, it would undermine the quality of those programs that survive. David Kass, the President of a national nonprofit anti-crime organization called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, has said, "Law enforcement leaders across the country agree: this [proposal] threatens public safety."

Mr. President, I hope that my colleagues will reject the Administration's proposal and continue to support the 21st Century Community Learning Centers.