White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney triggered a storm of complaints when he defended elimination of a large federal after-school program. When asked in a press conference about the impact on students in Pennsylvania, Mulvaney couched his answer as pertaining to "after-school programs generally."
"They're supposed to be educational programs, right," he said March 16. "That's what they're supposed to do, they're supposed to help kids who can't -- who don't get fed at home, get fed so that they do better at school. Guess what? There's no demonstrable evidence they're actually doing that. There's no demonstrable evidence they're actually helping results, helping kids do better at school."
President Donald Trump’s budget zeros out the $1.2 billion for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program that helps fund after-school and summer programs in disadvantaged communities around the country.
We wondered what the research shows. Is there evidence programs like this help academically?
The answer is a qualified yes. Improvements in test scores can be modest, and results vary from place to place. Also, as you might expect, the kids who actually come every day do better than those who don’t.
California commissioned the UCLA Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing to do a detailed analysis of that state’s program. The center’s 2012 report found that among high school students "participation had a slightly positive but minor effect on English language arts and math California Standards Test scores."
How minor? Students who took advantage of the afterschool program on average had scores a few points higher than a control group (matched according to a number of characteristics). Researchers called the results statistically significant but "substantively weak."
For younger children, from kindergarten through eighth grade, the center’s research found the program boosted test scores only for the students who came regularly. For those who rarely showed up, there was no benefit.
Deborah La Torre, a research associate at the UCLA center, told us food is an incidental part of these programs, and she called Mulvaney’s description "muddled." In California, the kids must get a "healthy snack."
"None of the programs just provide food," La Torre said. "That’s not what they are about. They are mandated to provide specific academic programs in math and English, to help with homework and offer other programs such as art or physical fitness."
The Texas Education Agency also brought in an outside group to assess its federally funded afterschool program. Similarly to the California study, researchers found "program participation was associated with higher Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores in reading/English language arts and mathematics."
But the benefits in Texas also mirrored California in that they were "primarily in the small to moderate range."
Mulvaney’s focus on food puzzled other experts in this field, including Ken Springer at Southern Methodist University’s School of Education.
"Mr. Mulvaney's phrase ‘doing better in school’ leads somewhat narrowly to the question of whether better nutrition fosters better grades and test scores," Springer told us. "It does, but when we focus specifically on better nutrition provided by afterschool programs, there's evidence that these programs can have other benefits, such as positively impacting students' knowledge about nutrition as well as their eating habits."
Education researchers also emphasize that test scores alone are not the only measure of impact. Reduced absenteeism and better odds of moving up to the next grade are also linked to afterschool programs.
We made several requests for information from the White House and the Office of Management and Budget. We did not hear back.
Mulvaney said that there is no evidence that federally funded afterschool programs that feed students help kids do better in school. Two studies from two of the largest states, California and Texas, found modest but positive impacts on test scores. They also found other gains, such as better attendance at school and better odds of moving up to the next grade.
Mulvaney made a strong assertion that there is no evidence of gains. There is, even if test scores only rise a little bit. We rate this claim Mostly False.