Even as California is promoting higher quality standards for its after-school programs, state leaders have rejected a proposal to provide cost-of-living increases for the programs – despite a rising minimum wage, higher employee health care costs and newly mandated sick leave for staff that are putting the squeeze on providers.
Since 2006, when the After School Education and Safety Act was first implemented to provide guaranteed funding for after-school programs, California has invested $550 million each year in after-school programs, more than any other state. But the law limits funding to about $7.50 per pupil each day for a program that must stay open until 6 p.m. on school days and operate a minimum of 15 hours a week.
Program providers say the daily reimbursement, which hasn’t increased in nine years, is far below what it costs to provide a quality program.
“A lot of folks see only the $550 million,” said Jennifer Peck, executive director of the Partnership for Children & Youth, a nonprofit based in Oakland that supports after-school and summer programs. “But if you look at the details, we’re starving the programs on the ground.”
Although the Legislature had approved a funding boost of $25 million – called for under Senate Bill 645, introduced by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley – the final budget agreement hammered out with Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated any increase.
“A lot of folks see only the $550 million,” said Jennifer Peck, executive director of the Partnership for Children & Youth. “But if you look at the details, we’re starving the programs on the ground.”
The Brown administration opposes more funding for the state program, which was established as the result of a voter-approved initiative, because it already receives a constitutionally guaranteed $550 million each year, said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance.
Districts can direct additional resources to after-school programs under the Local Control Funding Formula for education, which gives districts broader freedom to fund programs as they see fit, Palmer said.
“The largest impact to these programs financially is the minimum wage law imposed by the state,” said Michael Funk, director of the After School Division of the California Department of Education. “The state bears some responsibility to keep the program whole.”
But Michael Funk, director of the After School Division of the California Department of Education, sees it differently.
“The largest impact to these programs financially is the minimum wage law imposed by the state,” Funk said, noting the recently approved $1 increase taking the minimum wage to $10 an hour. “The state bears some responsibility to keep the program whole.”
He doesn’t believe that most districts will chip in additional funds if they’re not required to do so.
The new funding formula is “the (state’s) answer to every education funding question,” he said. “I’m not optimistic that we are going to be put in the front of the line. Some districts may decide to do that, but it’s not going to happen in the majority of the cases.”
About 820,000 California students participate in after-school programs, which provide academic support, typically coordinated with what students have learned during the school day. Programs also offer enrichment activities such as sports, science, music and art to help close both the achievement and opportunity gaps between low-income students and their higher-income peers.
For existing programs, the law requires that more than half of participating students be eligible for free and reduced-price meals. With any new program, 90 percent of the students must be from low-income families.
At the same time that costs are increasing, programs are being asked to meet higher standards.
The California Department of Education released new quality standards for after-school programs in 2014. The standards validate what programs have become – an integral part of a student’s education, Funk said. Programs are expected to be “thoughtful and intentional about quality” and show continuous quality improvements, he said.
But because the standards are essentially voluntary, providers are candid in admitting that, with no increased funding, they cannot all be met. For example, the standards are calling for building partnerships with families, schools and community groups, and recruiting and retaining quality staff.
“They’re trying to have higher standards, and we have to go the other way because the funding is not there,” said Randy Barth, chief executive officer of THINK Together, a nonprofit based in Santa Ana and the state’s largest provider of after-school programs.
Most of the costs of after-school programs are in the staffing, said Marty Weinstein, executive director of Bay Area Community Resources, a nonprofit based in San Rafael that provides after-school programs in about 100 schools. The increase in the state’s minimum wage beginning Jan. 1, 2016, and higher minimum wages set by some cities are a good thing, Weinstein said.
“But we are operating on the margin,” he said. “At some point in time, it won’t be possible to do it.”
California law requires that full-time exempt employees, who don’t get paid for overtime, make twice the state minimum wage. With the increase in the minimum wage, THINK Together may have to go to hourly employment at 6½ hours a day for its site coordinators, who in the past have put in much more than 40 hours a week as exempt employees, Barth said.
A shorter day will make it more difficult for the coordinator to train the part-time staff, plan the program, do administrative tasks and work with teachers and administrators at the school to ensure a smooth transition from the school day to the after-school program, he said.
The nonprofit may also have to lay off the coordinator each summer, which is when much of the planning and training takes place, Barth said. Making the position less than full-time will reduce the number of people willing to take the job, he added, and lead to high turnover.
Since the budget deal, SB 645 has been rewritten to provide some financial relief to struggling after-school programs. Under the current version, which is now before the Assembly Appropriations Committee, programs could close for up to five school days without any reduction in funding. The bill also makes some technical changes, requested by the California Department of Education, which would prevent increases in costs to the programs.
But there is one bright spot for after-school programs, advocates say. Beginning this school year, the state has set minimum baseline funding at $27,000 a year per program, which will benefit 26 small rural after-school programs that were receiving less than that. A couple of the smallest programs received only $4,000 a year from the state.
The increased funding “is going to make a huge difference,” said Allyson Harris, program director for after-school programs for the Shasta County Office of Education.
For example, at Platina Elementary School, funding for the after-school program, which serves 13 students, will double, Harris said, and so will the staff, which now consists of one teacher. The money will allow the program to hire a new site facilitator, provide teacher training and develop new curricula.
In 2016-17, about 80 rural programs can also apply for up to $15,000 a year for transportation costs. That funding will support field trips for the students in Platina’s after-school program, Harris said.
Meanwhile, for the larger programs, advocates and providers could push for raising the per-pupil rate without increasing the overall amount allocated to the state’s after-school program. But that would mean the current programs, many of which already have waiting lists, would have to reduce the number of students they serve, said Jessica Gunderson, policy director with the Partnership for Children & Youth.
The push for higher rates “is much bigger than keeping doors open,” she said. “It’s ensuring that kids in the most underserved communities have access to quality learning opportunities and experiences after school.”