The phrase "balancing work and family" is abstract. Here's the concrete part: Kids' school schedules are out of sync with their parents' work schedules. It is plain dumb that from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, we just let kids loose.
Yes, many families make heroic efforts to deal with this problem. But many others -- especially in households that desperately need two incomes -- are put in a terrible dilemma. Filling the 3 to 6 gap is one of our most urgent social needs, a point made regularly by law enforcement officials.
Some politicians understand it, too. "After-school programs keep kids safe, help working families and improve academic achievements," said the most prominent one of them all. "They engage students in service and ensure that youth have access to anti-substance abuse programs. For America's working parents, they provide the confidence that their children are well cared for after the school day ends."
Excellent points. President Bush made them in a letter he wrote on Oct. 4, 2002, to a group called the Afterschool Alliance. So why, exactly, has the president proposed to cut federal spending on after-school care by 40 percent? Under Bush's budget, federal spending on 21st Century Community Learning Centers would drop from $1 billion this year to $600 million next year.
Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who worked with Bush on the education bill, notes that the program now covers about 1.5 million kids. The program's advocates estimate that at least 500,000 would be affected by the cut.
This cut, alas, perfectly embodies what's wrong with the way this administration is doing business. The dissonance between the president's moderate, compassionate words and his spending priorities is jarring.
Moreover, the federal government is pulling away from a problem at exactly the moment when giant budget deficits are forcing states to do less themselves. In Maryland, for example, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, has proposed cutting the Maryland After School Opportunity Fund in half, from $10 million to $5 million. The Afterschool Alliance reports similar cuts in at least four other states and expects more to follow.
Bush speaks constantly of making it easier for faith-based groups to get federal funds. The 21st Century program was opened to such organizations last year. Does it help faith-based groups to let them into the program and then dry up the funding?
Miller is not alone in suspecting that this program was vulnerable because it happened to be one of former president Bill Clinton's more popular initiatives. "There's obviously been a search-and-destroy mission against anything that was Clinton," he says.
Oh, yes, Bush says we have to make these hard budget choices, but he has refused to put a price tag on the war with Iraq (it could easily run to $100 billion) and insists we need his huge tax cuts for the wealthy. Let's see: We have to cut $400 million from after-school programs to pay for the elimination of the dividends tax, which will eventually cost the government $50 billion a year in revenue?
Most remarkable, the administration has justified this cut as good government. It cites a recent study by Mathematica Policy Research showing, as the administration's budget documents put it, that "the centers funded in the program's first three years are not providing substantial academic content and do not appear to have a positive impact on students' behavior."
The Mathematica study did find some positive effects from the program, and some of its criticisms were disputed by after-school advocates. But let's assume that the report was sound and that these programs would do well to beef up their academic content. That's still no excuse for using a single report as a rationale for cutting the federal government's commitment to helping kids between the hours of 3 and 6. We need to build on the after-school experience, not retreat. And, by the way, does the administration have one standard for social programs -- a little bad news and they're slashed -- and another for tax cuts and, say, missile defense?
To challenge these cutbacks, I nominate a good Republican known as The Terminator. Last fall, Arnold Schwarzenegger led the fight for Proposition 49 in California, a ballot measure that will eventually provide about $430 million for after-school programs. It passed with 57 percent of the vote. "My hope is that, as goes California, so goes the rest of the nation," he declared. Arnold, where your priorities are concerned, your president is saying, "Hasta la vista, baby."