EACH YEAR, THOUSANDS of working Massachusetts families rely on afterschool programs to provide a safe, supervised haven for their children. But there are thousands more children sitting on wait lists for affordable, quality programs.
Parents know afterschool programs inspire their children to learn and help them academically as well as to develop the social and emotional skills they’ll need for high school, college, and beyond. Research consistently finds that participation in afterschool programs boosts math and science grades, reduces risky behaviors, and promotes physical health.
It’s for all of these reasons that 90 percent of Massachusetts parents support afterschool programs. This is one issue that does not divide along party lines. For most families, the idea of funding programs for children where they are learning and thriving is a no-brainer, but somehow it continues to be a non-starter when it comes to adequate public funding.
Year after year, the need for afterschool programs far exceeds available funding. Over the last decade alone, unmet demand for these programs grew by 20 percent, while government funding failed to keep pace with the demand. Many centers were forced to close their doors or limit the number of students they could accommodate. This has left countless families unable to find or afford quality programs for their children after school.
While nearly 200,000 kids are enrolled in afterschool programs in Massachusetts, another 362,000 are on waiting lists for available programs and more than 200,000 kids are left unsupervised at home. Quietly, a new generation of latchkey kids has emerged. Too many children are home alone after school – sedentary, bored, and left to their own devices. Access to affordable afterschool programs is the solution for working families who want their kids engaged, safe, and building the skills they need for success.
At afterschool programs, children can have fun, and meet and connect with friends, which can lead to improved behavior, stronger character, and fewer emotional problems. Healthy lifestyle habits are often encouraged through physical activity and good nutrition, which can lead to reductions in obesity levels. Many programs across the Commonwealth also offer a variety of expanded learning opportunities, including tutoring and homework assistance, reading and literacy curriculums and STEM-based exercises.
The benefits of afterschool programs extend far beyond the students. Working families, who are the cornerstone of our economy, are able to maintain gainful employment and miss fewer workdays because they are secure in the knowledge that their children are safe.
While Massachusetts’s $40 billion budget for FY 2018 represents a 4.3 percent bump in state spending, it falls short of the funding necessary to bring afterschool and summer learning up to demand. At the same time, funding from the federal government is in doubt. Millions of dollars that go towards critical afterschool programs across the state are at risk of being cut entirely, putting thousands of kids at risk.
Going forward, we must work together to increase funding so more children may gain access to these vital services. Low-income families, in terms of their child’s security and the parents’ employment, suffer the brunt of even the most minimal cuts to these programs. Most important, rigorous evaluations continue to reveal that afterschool programs promote a range of significant developmental, learning, and educational outcomes for kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Quality programs help level the playing field for all kids, and can mitigate the “achievement gap” which continues to plague the Massachusetts education system. When parents are able to enroll their children in high-quality programs, they are less stressed about what their kids are doing after school, and are more productive at work. Fully funding afterschool programs benefits all children. And it’s high time we make them a priority.
Ardith Wieworka is executive director of the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership, which works to ensure every child in Massachusetts has equal access to high quality out-of-school time programming after school, before school, and during the summer months.