The Trump administration wants to cut $9.2 billion, or 13.5 percent, from the Education Department’s budget. If Congress approves the cuts, after-school programs that help thousands of Vermont children would take a big hit.
These are programs that offer supervision, tutoring and in some cases meals before and after school and during the summer.
On a recent Thursday, for instance, a small group of first and second graders was busy in the library of Rutland’s Northwest School, even though it was after 4 p.m.
The kids are part of Rutland’s Tapestry program, which provides after school care for students from kindergarten to sixth grade until 5:30 p.m.
Ryan Connell, a Tapestry paraeducator, sat with two kids who were pouring over an Eye Spy book.
“So, let’s see if we can find an owl, a bear and a baseball bat,” encouraged Connell.
“I’m going to look for the owl,” the boy said.
"I’m looking for the baseball bat,” chimed in the girl next to him.
“Nice job! OK,” said Connell, who quietly moved from one table to another encouraging or gently redirecting as needed.
“No, we’re going to give Noah space and then we’re going to find something else to do for right now,” Connell explained to one child. “So right now, we’re coloring or we’re reading or we’re drawing.”
Down the hall, kindergartners made bunnies out of Popsicle sticks, while older kids played basketball in the gym.
Deb Hathaway is executive director of The Tapestry Program, which last year launched a new program for middle and high school students called EPIC — Engaging Programs and Inspired Connections.
She says they offer programming in eight different schools in Rutland and have hundreds of students who participate.
Families who can afford it pay $15 a day to participate, but many receive subsidies.
Amanda Gurney calls the program a life-saver. She works as a home-school coordinator at Rutland Northwest school and says her 14-year-old son Braeden has taken part in the Tapestry program for years. Now, she says, he’s enrolled in the middle school program.
I ask her what Braeden would be doing without it.
"He might be going home hanging out, who knows where they could be going?" she says. "I have to work until at least 5:30 or 6, so its important for him to have a positive place to go after school that will keep him entertained and out of trouble.”
He’s a great kid, she says, but adds that the after-school program provides tremendous peace of mind.
For his part, Braeden says he likes the program and would recommend it. “If you want to do something, they’ll usually let you, unless it’s completely irrational,” he says, smiling.
“You can go to the gym or to the computer lab and use the computers for games or work. Kids can make friends there, and people are nice. If you need help with homework, there are teachers there and someone’s usually available if you ask.”
But funding for the program comes from a $1.2 billion grant that President Trump wants to eliminate.
It’s called the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Initiative — 21 C for short — and it’s specifically targeted to after school and summer learning programs in disadvantaged communities around the country.
White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney defended the proposed cuts during a March 16 press conference.
"They're supposed to be educational programs, right? 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,” Mulvaney told reporters. “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."
But a number of studies, including a U.S. Department of Education Report, conclude that student participation in after school programs has led to improvement in achievement and behavior.
Emanuel Betz says Vermont has noted similar benefits.
Betz is the state coordinator for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which oversees 103 after-school and summer learning programs in Vermont. According to the most recent 21 C state handbook, approximately 15,000 youth and 6,000 regular attendees are served across the state.
Betz calls the $5.5 million the state receives annually for these programs a good investment.
“We’re certainly seeing an increase where regular attendees are going to school more on average, we’re seeing a really strong trend in their academic performance and we’re also seeing a lot of skill-based positive effects such as building confidence, friendships, collaboration skills, research, et cetera," Betz says.
While the president’s proposed cuts are troubling, Betz says at this point, they are only recommendations and he says Congress will have a chance to weigh in.
In previous years, Betz says there’s been strong bipartisan support in Congress for this sort of funding, so he remains hopeful it will remain in the budget.
Back at the Northwest School, Deb Hathaway smiles as she watches kindergartners in the Tapestry program work on an arts and crafts project.
She says if the president’s budget proposal is approved Rutland’s K-through-6 after school program would continue, but they'd have to cut staff and services.
But their middle and high school programs would disappear. They're newer, Hathaway explains, and don’t have as broad a funding base yet.
“Currently I am not aware of any funding that would replace 21 C in Vermont," Hathaway says. "We have about 103 programs across the state that are funded by 21 C, and when we look across the state I don’t see private endowment or grant funds that are part of companies that we would look to. I don’t know of any other funding source that could replace that money.”
The Rutland Recreation Department and the Boys and Girls Club of Rutland County also offer after-school activities and programs — programs that Hathaway admires. But she says it’s good to have options for families so they can find the best fit because the programs are different.
“His [Trump’s] budget will cut a tremendous amount of very beneficial programs to our children who are struggling, living in poverty, are homeless — and he says they don’t work,” says Hathaway, shaking her head.
“Well, you’re looking at someone who struggled as a child,” she says, pointing to herself.
Hathaway says she grew up in a poor household where college wasn’t considered an option, until a federal program called Upward Bound changed her life.
“I was able to learn about college, I was nurtured in the summer and I went on to college," she says. "And I have two masters degrees and I’m almost finishing my dissertation.”
But programs that help disadvantaged students prepare for college are also on the president’s chopping block, something Hathaway finds equally shortsighted.
She says breaking the cycle of poverty is hard.
To do it, she says communities and lawmakers need to understand that children are a society’s biggest resource, and need all the support they can get to succeed.