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Education Reporter

12-Hour School Days?
Darcy Olsen
Darcy Olsen
In his 2000 State of the Union Address, President Clinton proposed the largest-ever federal expenditure on after-school programs. As part of his "new family agenda," presidential candidate Al Gore wants to spend an extra $11 billion on after-school programs for latch-key kids. Republican leaders have also embraced increased spending for after-school programs. Presidential nominee George W. Bush has called for a greater federal role in education and support of "federal youth programs."

The most prominent advocacy group for federally funded after-school programs is the Children's Defense Fund. Helen Blank, director of child care and development, and Kim Wade, assistant general counsel, write, "Today, when a majority of parents of school-age children are in the workforce, and when welfare-to-work is a national priority, the need for school-age care has taken on a special urgency." But this is a misconception.

Latch-key Crisis? 
"On any given day in America, as many as 15 million school-age children are left to fend for themselves - on the streets or alone at home." - President Clinton

Advocates of publicly funded after-school programs paint a bleak picture of existence for school children in modern times, but the facts paint a much healthier picture. The latest figures on the number and characteristics of children in self-care come from the 1995 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) data collected by the Census Bureau. Unlike previous surveys, the SIPP attempted to capture all incidences of self-care, no matter how brief.

Census Bureau tabulations of SIPP data show that few young children ever spend time unsupervised. Only an estimated 2% of children aged five through 11 ever care for themselves, and they do so for six hours per week on average. Data also show that a child's age, not the family's income, is the primary determinant of whether a child spends time at home alone. In fact, self-care is more likely when family incomes are relatively high and when mothers are better educated. In light of this information, the assertion that there is an urgent need for taxpayer-subsidized after-school programs is not convincing.

Until the 1995 SIPP data, the most recent estimates of self-care came from the National Child Care Survey (NCCS), sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which is generally considered to be the best example of well-designed data collection on child care. Comparing findings from SIPP and NCCS is possible because the surveys are alike in study design, questionnaire construction, and the concept of self-care. Although the NCCS data were collected 10 years ago, the findings are consistent with the most recent SIPP data, and are therefore still relevant to current discussions.

President Clinton's statement that "as many as 15 million school-age children are left to fend for themselves" is misleading. Even if one includes self-care arrangements for 13- and 14-year-olds, SIPP data indicate that roughly seven million children ages 5 through 14, or half the number Clinton cites, spend time unsupervised. It appears the administration has inflated the number of children in self-care by including teenagers - adolescents who often hold jobs, drive, and can even marry or serve in the military - in its estimates of children who need after school care.

Community Learning Centers  
The administration's request to fund after-school programs is only a small part of a plan to expand the role of public schools. For example, the centerpiece of the administration's after-school proposal is the $1 billion federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. The program's purpose is to turn public schools into "learning centers" that, in addition to regular education, provide after-school care and at least four other services ranging from parent training and daycare to job training and health programs.

In the U.S. Department of Educa-tion's publication Keeping Schools Open as Community Learning Centers: Extending Learning in a Safe, Drug-Free Environment before and after School, Clinton explains his support for learning centers. "Our schools are critical to bringing our communities together," he says. "We want to serve the public not just during school hours but after hours - to function as vital community centers; places for recreation and learning . . . gathering places for young people and adults alike."

About 1,600 public schools in 471 communities now have such learning centers. The administration has made clear that funding after-school 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 is exactly the wrong approach. Congress should cease funding after-school programs. Instead, 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 after-school programs. Current Government Spending

The federal government currently funds more than 100 grant and loan programs for after-school care through at least seven federal departments. However, no figures exist at this time to show how much funding actually goes to after-school programs. That is partly because many funds can be used for multiple purposes. For instance, an estimated $20 billion is spent annually to subsidize child care expenses, but government figures do not differentiate between the proportion that goes to school-age care and that used for younger children.

There are no figures showing how much states spend on after-school care, but it appears that the number of states with after-school programs is increasing. In 1999, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that, since 1986, at least 18 states had appropriated state funding for after-school programs and at least 18 had authorized school districts to use school facilities to provide services. A 1999 survey by the National Governors' Association found that at least 26 states plan to increase funding for "extra learning opportunities."

Although the specific amount of spending is still elusive, the results of that spending are not. The proliferation of state and federal spending on after-school programs has increased the proportion of public schools with extended-day programs from 13% in 1988 to 63% in 1998.

Surplus Programs 
"There is a chronic shortage of after-school programs available to serve children." - U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice.

The 1993 National Study of Before-and After-School Programs is the first and only study to provide a comprehensive nationwide picture of formal school- and center-based programs for children. It found a surplus of after-school programs in excess of 40%: "Overall, the mean utilization of space in licensed before- and after-school programs was 59%." Researchers discovered that this was as true for programs serving lower-income families as for those serving higher-income families. Moreover, one in four programs was experiencing vacancy rates greater than 75%, suggesting that either some localities have a tremendous glut of programs or the programs aren't considered very desirable.

Since the National Study was conducted, countless public and private initiatives have increased the total number of providers. The proportion of private schools with extended-day programs grew from 31% in 1988 to 49% in 1994. Private foundations, too, have been working to increase the supply of programs. Crime Prevention?

Statistics indicate that juvenile crime peaks in the afternoon, and proponents of after-school programs reason that such programs will reduce juvenile crime. The prominent after-school program advocacy group, "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids," says: "When we send millions of young people out on the streets after school with no responsible supervision or constructive activities, we reap a massive dose of juvenile crime. If, instead, we were to provide students with quality after-school programs, safe havens from negative influences, and constructive recreational, academic enrichment and community services activities, we would dramatically reduce crime."

But data from the FBI and the Census Bureau show that the overwhelming majority of juveniles exhibit neither delinquent nor criminal behavior. Department of Justice crime statistics suggest that fewer than 1% of juveniles aged 10 to 17 violated curfew and loitering laws in 1998, and about 1/4 of 1% committed violent crimes. Arrest rates for drug and alcohol violations were also less than 1%. Even statistics for property crimes, which have the highest crime index, show that fewer than 2% of juveniles committed such crimes.

Another way to attempt to capture the incidence of criminal and delinquent behavior is to ask juveniles themselves about their involvement in various activities. One of the best applications of that approach is the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which reported on the behavior of a nationally representative sample of youth between the ages of 12 and 16. The survey examined a number of "deviant and delinquent" behaviors and showed that most teens are not deviant or delinquent. An estimated eight of ten teens are not regularly having sex, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or using marijuana. Fewer still have ever been arrested (8%), stolen something worth more than $50 (8%), sold any drugs (7%), become pregnant (6%), or belonged to a gang (5%).

Practically speaking, the low incidence of juvenile crime seems to call for narrow, highly targeted crime prevention efforts, not universal after-school programs for all children. Over the past 35 years there have been several attempts to target crime prevention efforts in high-crime areas, primarily through community based after-school programs. The best empirical evidence suggests those programs do little, if anything, to reduce delinquency rates or curb crime.

Alternative Programs 
Private providers and entrepreneurs can and do respond to parents' demands for extra-parental supervision for their children. The National Study of Before- and After-School Programs found that private school-sponsored programs have been in operation more than twice as long as public school-based programs. The study found that private for-profit providers are more likely than public programs to operate during the summer and on school holidays (96% vs. 62%). The study concludes: "Our findings suggest that private programs, whether nonprofit or for-profit, are more geared to market demands."

Critics say that the private marketplace might work well for privileged families, but children from lower-income families will be shut out because their parents can't afford to pay. But critics underestimate the generosity and business sense of American entrepreneurs. The National Study found that 39% of private nonprofit providers and 15% of private for-profit providers adjust fees on the basis of family income. In addition, 34% of private non-profit providers offer scholarships and tuition grants.

Employers, too, are making after-school arrangements easier for parents. Some employers help families meet after-school needs by offering such options as flex time, job-sharing, part-time arrangements, and telecommuting.

Legislators might also consider state-level universal tuition tax credits as an alternative to more government programs and increased spending. Unlike the traditional tuition tax credit, the universal credit can benefit children in families with little or no income tax liability by allowing any taxpayer to reduce his tax liability by paying a child's tuition. For example, friends or relatives could pay all or part of a student's tuition and receive an income tax credit. Businesses can do the same. In Arizona, nonprofit organizations have opened tuition clearinghouses that match tuition tax credit contributions from individual taxpayers with students from low-income families. Conclusion

Beneath the political establishment's enthusiastic endorsement of after-school programs rests a stunning body of evidence that families are perfectly adept at managing after-school arrangements without state assistance.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy at the Cato Institute,a public policy research foundation in Washington, DC. The above was excerpted from Policy Analysis, 12-Hour School Days? 6/7/00.

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