Private-sector child care providers fear being put out of business by the dramatic growth of 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a Department of Education program that has grown far beyond its original intent of boosting lifelong learning opportunities for all community members, particularly adults.
In just six years, what was envisioned as a modest $20 million effort to share public school resources with the whole community has been transformed into a $1 billion subsidy for public schools to extend their academic programs into out-of-school hours and to get into the child care business.
Expressing her concerns to Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo earlier this year, Andre Ransom of the Colorado Child Care Association explained that expanding government school-age child care programs will “weaken the private infrastructure that also cares for infant and toddler children”–an infrastructure that is supported by “surplus income” from the care of older children.
“Weaken the private center too much and they will go out of business,” she warned.
Colorado Congressman Bob Schaffer, who conducted a hearing on the reauthorization of the Learning Center program in February, agreed. “If the government continues to expand its role in before- and after-school care, it will move all of the children out of private child care and into government child care,” he said.
This year, Congress appropriated $453 million for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, up sharply from the $200 million spent in 1999, $40 million in 1998, and $1 million in 1997. In his State of the Union message earlier this year, President Clinton called for a further doubling of spending on the program, which he said “serves children after-school and during the summer.”
Nearly 4,000 centers provide 1,600 after-school programs for nearly 600,000 children in 468 communities. The increased funding would add 6,000 new centers and provide extended-hour school services for approximately 2.5 million children per year.
“I have been astounded at the amount of money in this program that puts public schools in competition with the private sector,” said Ransom.
Sometimes, the first time that private providers learn about the program is when they are asked to participate in a grant application. Nancy Goodell, executive director of After School Inc., and Pat O’Brien, president/CEO of the YMCA of Dane County, said they were asked to write letters of support for a 21st Century Grant for the Madison public schools–a grant they “had not seen and were not brought to the table to help craft.”
“We are being asked to draft letters that could in essence eliminate programs we have worked more than two decades to develop,” they wrote in response to the request, asking to be included in the grant process “in a meaningful way.”
Testifying about the centers before Schaffer’s February 10 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families, national YMCA executive Lynne Vaughan called on Congress to expand the eligibility of grant recipients “to include community-based organizations” such as the YMCA, Camp Fire Boys and Girls, and other community organizations. The resulting increased competition, she said, would improve the quality of all programs.
“Let’s focus funding on kids, not institutions,” said Vaughan.
The program’s current focus on children is driven by the U.S. Department of Education’s grant funding guidelines, which state: “In recognizing needs expressed by the education community, the Secretary will only fund programs that will, among other activities, provide expanded learning opportunities for children and youth.” However, Congress’s focus in creating the program was not education for children and youth, but lifelong learning opportunities primarily for adults.
When Congress passed legislation for the centers in 1994, the intent was to encourage poor rural and inner-city communities to make use of underutilized public school facilities and technology for re-educating and retraining adults for work in the modern global economy. The program was expected to cost around $20 million, according to former Congressman Steve Gunderson, who authored the program and now criticizes “the migration of the program far beyond its original intent” to serve other goals.
“The Department is misrepresenting the Program’s mission,” with false claims about the focus of the program, said Gunderson, testifying at the February 10 subcommittee hearing. After-school programs are important, he said, but “those programs were not the primary purpose of this legislation.”
While the legislation was intended to provide incentives for schools to open their facilities and equipment for adults, Gunderson pointed out that most of the grant recipients are ill-equipped to serve an adult population, since they are elementary or middle schools rather than high schools. Instead of serving adults, he said the program was in danger of becoming little more than “glorified baby-sitting” for children.
During and after the hearing, Schaffer expressed concern that the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program was hurting private-sector child care providers. While recognizing the significant demand for before- and after-school programs, he questioned whether expanding the government’s role in those programs was an appropriate public policy response.
“In any other industry in America, the government removes the barriers so that the private sector can come in and provide that service to consumers,” he said. “Only in education and in child care does the government step in and run the business.”
Ransom agreed. “What is really needed is a public policy that allows parents choice and does not lock them into school district-only programs.”
But some groups may not want a different policy. When National PTA President Virginia Markell called for increasing the federal government’s commitment to 21st Century Community Learning Centers at a House Budget hearing September 23, she also spoke out against vouchers and school choice.
“Congress should not divert public funds to private schools,” she said, “but instead should address the immediate needs of schools such as . . . expanding before- and after-school learning opportunities.”
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.