At the end of 2017, the nation is on the verge of one of the largest federal tax cuts in modern times. And while some in Washington celebrate, for others the Congressional tax deal holds the specter of devastating cuts to social services and education programs that rely on federal dollars. Some are bracing for budgets squeezed dry, and more and more programs, already run on a shoestring, hobbled to ineffectiveness or nonexistence.
Knowing what’s at stake, people in our line of work don’t typically cheer or find a silver lining in such news from Washington. So while final details – and as of this writing, nothing’s a done deal – of a likely tax bill are in the works, out-of-school time programs must forge ahead into an uncertain funding future. What’s clear is that resources from many traditional public sources are dwindling – and no major new resources are on the way. In this environment, how do programs create and sustain a culture in which programs that serve youth in the out-of-school time hours complete each other rather than compete with each other for increasingly scarce financial and other resources?
First, we must face a complex reality honestly and together.
Here’s what we know about that reality: Federal and state funding has been declining for more than a decade. Across the board, federal spending on children – including education funding – has dropped 9.4 since 2011 at twice the rate of cuts to other federal programs (overall, federal funding has decreased four percent within the same timeframe). Meanwhile, states struggle to make up the difference. Several have run into their own budgetary difficulties with more than 30 states facing budget shortfalls in either their 2017 or 2018 fiscal year. This has resulted in leaner public coffers. As a stopgap measure, deeper cuts appear imminent in many states.
Meanwhile, the wealth and opportunity gap is increasing.
By 6th grade, middle-class kids have spent 4,000 more hours in afterschool and summer learning opportunities than low-income students. Currently, 4.5 million kids from lower-income families attend afterschool programs. An additional 9.7 million kids would take part if programs were available. Moreover, research suggests that spending on extracurriculars is largely dictated by family income – overall fees for school-based afterschool activities are rising. Whether kids participate in such programs is largely divided along lines of family income. Since 1983, America’s wealthiest families have increased spending on their children by 75 percent. At the same time, there’s been a 22 percent drop in spending by those at the bottom of the income scale.
Yet the funding climate is likely to get worse before it gets better. Not only does the forecast not bode well for the expansion of programming, many communities will fight to retain the fragile infrastructure they have built for existing programs. Trends in state and federal funding point to tighter budgets overall. Private funders have stepped up but can cover only a portion of the gap.
The economic forecast is daunting. But advocates for children’s programs are beginning to look local. Cities and counties have risen to the forefront of solving the funding conundrum. Across the nation more local jurisdictions are increasingly taking on the task of understanding, coordinating and, in some cases, generating local revenue to support children’s programs and services as the relative certainty of federal grants waivers.
There are several ways advocates are organizing themselves:
- Local advocates are learning how to follow the local money. They are finding that the best trees to shake are rooted locally. Children’s program advocates are developing the capacity to identify, develop a baseline, and track funding to ensure that available dollars, particularly those that are flexible (the most flexible funds tend to be locally controlled) stay in their communities.
- Some localities are launching campaigns to take the decision to raise local funds for children’s programs to the voters – and they are winning. Of the fifteen local ballot initiatives for dedicated local funding for children in the 2016 elections, 12 passed with overwhelming voter approval. While national politics roll to the top of the newsfeed, a local movement is underfoot to establish locally-generated, locally-controlled dedicated funds for children and youth. More often than not the effort is worth the run.
- More than 30 communities across the nation – from San Francisco to Baltimore to MO and FL – have established dedicated children’s funds, many of which have sustained years of political changes and the hurdle of voter reauthorization. Collectively, these localities have generated nearly one billion dollars for children’s programs. This is roughly equal to the federal allocation for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program – dollars at risk of being defunded. If one hundred more communities undertook this effort and won, these communities could potentially generate more than $4 billion in local, dedicated revenues for children.
Turning to local sources to fund OST opportunities requires out-of-the-box thinking – but folks in our profession are used to that kind of thinking. Let’s apply it to our collective fiscal future as well. Our programs are worth the fight and are worthy of our very best shot.
For breakfast, I had a non-traditional breakfast: a tamale, an apple, and milk.