Federal after-school program has ‘nothing to show for it,' Russell says

July 17, 2017

Jay Chilton

A multi-million-dollar federal education program, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) grants program, has “nothing to show for it,” U.S. Rep. Steve Russell says. Also, a review of 21st CCLC grant recipients’ assessment practices in the state showed that the program’s claims of success are based in part on the use of self-evaluations by school children. Yet the Oklahoma Department of Education continues to push the program.

Russell, a Republican who represents Oklahoma’s Fifth Congressional District, said school choice reforms and local initiatives would better serve communities. He made the remarks in his June 2017 “Waste Watch: Education Edition” report.

A July 5 report by CIJ outlined some of the criticism of the 21st CCLC program. But Joy Hofmeister, the Republican state superintendent of public instruction, is urging schools and partnering organizations across the state to apply for 21st CCLC grants.

Russell’s “Waste Watch” report outlined multiple programs that he says are a waste of federal taxpayer dollars. 21st CCLC, he said, has wasted billions of dollars and produced no positive results.

“I remain committed to stopping government waste,” Russell wrote in his analysis, “and looking for ways to protect the hard-earned money of the American taxpayer. “Waste Watch” editions have covered a variety of topics. The seventh edition “focuses on waste in an area that taxpayers fundamentally support—education.”

He explained that assessments of the program by the Obama administration confirmed findings from multiple previous studies that showed no benefit. However, despite evidence of the program’s ineffectiveness, it was further expanded when Obama’s Department of Education directed billions of dollars into the 21st Century Community Learning Centers and other ineffective programs between 2010 and 2015.

Russell believes the best solutions for children’s educational needs would be found through school choice reforms and locally generated community solutions.

“There are proven approaches to improving education,” he said. “Returning education control to parents, teachers, and local school boards is a good first step. Giving parents educational choice is a vital part of the solution.”

CIJ asked education researcher Vicki Alger about the benefits and failings of 21st CCLC. Alger is a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a free-market think tank in Oakland, California, and author of Failure: The Federal Miseducation of America’s Children.

Alger echoed Russell’s concerns about the program, citing inability to deliver the results intended. The most effective method for improving educational outcomes would be the use of school choice reforms, education savings accounts in particular, she said.

“21st Century Community Learning Centers is a costly, Clinton-era program that doesn’t work,” she said. “Rigorous evaluations over the years by Mathematica Policy Research as well as the U.S. Department of Education have concluded that ‘nearly all of the performance targets’ for the program ‘were not reached,’ despite spending around $18 billion to date. One evaluation even found that the behavior of participating students was worse compared to their peers who weren’t in the program.”

Alger said it was no surprise that President Trump eliminated funding for 21st CCLC in his proposed budget.

“A better way to assist Oklahoma students is making education savings accounts available to their parents,” she said. “ESAs would allow them to purchase the after-school tutoring or other services their children need in an effective, fiscally responsible way.”

Experts say that the methods used to gain a successful rating for the program by various agencies are flawed. Many have criticized these claims of success, saying that children from the program are asked to self-evaluate and describe how they feel about the program.

In a report for The Brookings Institution, education researcher Mark Dynarski said that some studies reach conclusions that are more positive than the official report by the Department of Education.

“They do so,” he said, “by reporting findings such as this one: ‘A statewide evaluation of South Carolina’s 21st CCLC programs found that 79 percent of students believed that the program had improved their academic skills.’ Asking students what they think happened to them hardly is a scientific basis for measuring program effects.”

CIJ found a similar method of assessing program effectiveness that is being employed in Oklahoma.

The David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality is under contract to provide a statewide evaluation of the Oklahoma 21st CCLC program.

Like the findings reported by evaluations in South Carolina, Oklahoma’s children—some who are eight years old or younger—are being asked to describe their feelings about the program rather than using an empirical data assessment to determine program success.

The 2016-2017 Oklahoma 21st CCLC Youth Survey was used to evaluate the effectiveness of the program in the state.

Below are some of the criteria used for the self-evaluations. The survey asks children to rate the criteria on sliding scale from “Almost always true” to Almost never true.”

Hofmeister and the Oklahoma state Department of Education continue to promote the 21st CCLC grant program and intend to award grants to winning organizations for the 2017-18 school year.