An eleventh-hour effort by the City Council in June to maintain funding for thousands of after-school spots achieved its intended purpose — but it also inadvertently created a two-tiered after-school system in which only some programs can strive to meet higher academic standards.
That’s the conclusion of a report released last week by the Independent Budget Office about Out of School Time, a Bloomberg administration initiative to streamline publicly funded after-school programming. The report finds that the city’s simultaneous efforts to reduce costs and boost quality in OST programs induced Bloomberg’s proposal to cut after-school spots dramatically this spring.
City funding for the program rose from $61 million in 2007 to $108 million in 2009, allowing the number of seats to grow substantially, according to the report. But this year, after half a dozen rounds of city budget cuts, the proposed budget for the program fell to $76 million.
At the same time, the city had embarked on an effort to raise standards in programs that had originally operated with offering “safe and developmentally appropriate environments” as its major goal. With an eye toward using OST programs to support academic instruction, the city told programs that they would have to hire “educational specialists” to develop curriculum and lessons — increasing the cost per participant by nearly 60 percent. The increase would required the number of slots to be cut in half, meaning about 26,000 children would have been shut out of OST programs this year.
Parents, community groups, and advocates responded to the proposed budget cuts with vociferous protest. A last-minute budget deal restored the slashed spots, using $50.6 million in City Council funds.
But because the council’s primary concern was maintaining capacity, it used last year’s funding formula when it restored programs’ budgets — making it impossible for the programs whose funding had been restored to be required to follow the Bloomberg administration’s new standards. That means city children are attending publicly funded after-school programs that are operating under different sets of standards, exactly the situation the city sought to eliminate when it moved to streamline OST offerings.
“The budget agreement between the Mayor and the Council can be seen as a compromise between creating a more service-intensive system at a higher cost per slot and preserving capacity,” the report concludes. It adds, “Since the Council funding is only for this year, the debate over these goals will likely be revisited soon.”
The Bloomberg administration’s decision to begin mandating that programs hire learning specialists was based on recent research on summer learning loss, according to Samantha Levine, a City Hall spokeswoman. Researchers have pegged students’ regression — known as the “summer slide” — at the equivalent of two months of school or more.
“OST programs have always offered a mix of academic support and recreational and cultural opportunities, but the new model strengthens the connection to the school day through stronger partnerships between schools and community-based providers,” Levine said.
Programs funded by the council at the lower rate are encouraged to follow the city’s new standards, which call for a stronger focus on academic subjects, especially literacy, science, math, and technology. But according to the IBO report, they simply will not have enough funding to hire specialist personnel.
But the emphasis on quality over quantity might have been misguided, especially at a time of fiscal austerity, according to Justin Goodman, a City Council spokesman.
“It would have cost $81 million to fund the same number of seats at the new rate, with what we believe would have been an incremental increase in quality,” Goodman said.
Indeed, the city’s more stringent — and more expensive — standards represent something of a solution in search of a problem, said Doug Turetsky, an IBO spokesman.
“No one was complaining that the current after-school programs weren’t adequate,” Turetsky said.