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Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999

FOUR COMMENTARIES: The Policy Climate for After-School Programs
Michelle E. Seligson Cynthia G. Brown Kimberly L. Barnes-O'Connor Gary C. Walker

The Policy Climate for School-Age Child Care

Michelle E. Seligson


After-school programs have exploded into the nation's consciousness, garnering fresh interest from the child advocacy community, the charitable giving world, and the public at large. Elected officials have declared the out-of-school time needs of children and youths as a top societal concern. On January 26, 1998, President Bill Clinton announced the administration's $1 billion proposal to help communities create and expand high-quality after-school programs with the following statement: "Improving after-school care is integral to improving child care across our country. Through after-school programs we can bring parents the peace of mind that comes from knowing their children are safe. We can teach our children to say no to drugs, alcohol, and crime, and yes to reading, sports, and computers." In June 1998, less than six months after the President's declaration, $40 million was earmarked for use by local education agencies to develop after-school programs. In October 1998, with bipartisan support, the U.S. Congress approved a $200 million expenditure to expand the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, a school-based after-school program. By January 1999, the White House had increased its budget request to $600 million each year for this program, for a total of $26 billion over five years.

This seemingly sudden interest in after-school programs can be attributed to three reform movements that have recently converged in the national public policy arena: welfare reform, crime prevention, and education reform. The three movements share an emphasis on targeting poor children and youths, and this has brought after-school programs to the political forefront and placed them in the center of a policy debate.

As the focus on after-school programs has heightened, there has been a shift in terminology away from the phrase "school-age child care." That term has been used for more than 20 years to describe programs offering regular supervision, care, and activities to school-age children while they are neither in school nor with other caregivers. Recent polls find, however, that parents and guardians do not use the words "child care" when it comes to their school-age children, but prefer terms such as "after-school activities." This broader term straddles the domains of child care, elementary education, and recreation. These fields offer programs that share many features (comfortable places, interesting activities, chances for children to be with peers and adults), but they differ sharply in emphases, in what they promise to parents and children, and in the policy context that structures their work.

Now it is time for policymakers, funders, and school-age professionals to reexamine this emerging field and search for a definition that can encompass the range of practices and theoretical beliefs that characterize the out-of-school time arena. A look into the evolution of policy surrounding the care of school-age children and youths offers insights into a number of tensions confronting the field now and underscores the need for further dialogue on the shape that policy should take as the twenty-first century begins.

The Evolution of School-Age Policy

For much of this century, the political assumption that the supervision and rearing of children should be the sole responsibility of the family—not of government or the private sector—has constrained public child care policies and funding. Historically, only special circumstances, such as a recognized national challenge or social agenda, have justified efforts by society to step in and assist families with school-age child care.

As early as 1894, private charities and day nurseries began providing care for school-age children. Their mission was typically to help immigrant children assimilate or to offer care for children from poor, troubled homes.1 Any broader movement that might supplant the mother's role in child rearing met strong resistance. It was not until World War II, when there was an urgent need for female workers to take the place of men in the nation's industries, that the government once again stepped in to fund child care services and opened programs for school-age children and preschoolers alike. After the war ended, however, federal funds for child care were eliminated.

An Emerging Issue

Not until the 1970s did the subject of before- and after-school child care emerge again in the public consciousness, as significant numbers of mothers again entered the workforce. For two decades, however, there was little government response to the explosive growth in the need for school-age programs. Despite urgent cries for action by parents, advocates, and community agencies, the federal government offered no comprehensive policies or targeted financial support to develop school-age child care.

In the absence of any national policy, the school-age field grew in an idiosyncratic manner, shaped by eligibility guidelines for public and private sources of funding. School-age care was implicitly included in government policies designed for the care of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Programs for children as old as 13 have been funded with child care dollars, and so they have been inspected and regulated using guidelines established by state and federal authorities to monitor early care and education programs. Disguised as an extension of care for younger children, the unique qualities of school-age care garnered little attention from policymakers or most educators.

Renewed Interest

Toward the end of the 1980s, the demand for school-age child care escalated, along with public concern about children's safety and well-being. By then, three-fourths of children ages 6 to 13 had a mother who was employed outside the home.2 Responding to a widespread sense of urgency, public and private groups began to target funds explicitly toward school-age programs and to sponsor comprehensive school-age initiatives. The U.S. Army and Air Force invested funds to improve program quality and staff compensation in the school-age programs that serve military families. The American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care (ABC), a child care initiative undertaken by 22 major corporations, fueled the school-age field with dollars to spawn exemplary projects improving quality, access, and the availability of programs in the communities where employees of ABC companies live.

Recent private-sector initiatives to build school-age child care capacity in local communities have also been supported by foundations. The After-School Corporation was created in 1998 by The Open Society Institute to contract with community-based organizations in New York City to operate after-school programs in the public schools, at an initial price tag of $25 million. An initiative called "Making the Most of Out-of-School Time" (MOST), funded by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and managed by the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, attempts to make sense of the after-school offerings in Boston, Seattle, and Chicago, and to develop a more responsive system of services there. (See also the article by Halpern in this journal issue.) The Mott Foundation intends to invest $55 million over five years in a partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, to provide training, technical assistance, and evaluation support to the efforts funded through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program mentioned at the start of this article.

At the same time, professional organizations such as the National Institute on Out-of-School Time and the National School-Age Care Alliance have spearheaded new efforts to raise program quality standards and promote professionalism in the field through a national program improvement and accreditation system. Efforts are also under way to design a professional credential for school-age staff, first launched by the U.S. Army.

Converging Reform Movements

At the end of the 1990s, educational goals and other social concerns are moving toward the center of school-age child care policy. The convergence of three reform movements—welfare reform, crime prevention, and educational reform—have led policymakers to discover after-school programming as a potential solution for a multitude of social challenges. A closer look at these three areas reveals their interconnections.

Welfare Reform

Mandatory work requirements imposed under welfare reform have moved poor single mothers into the labor force. Grave consequences may result for school-age children in welfare families if they receive lower priority for child care subsidies than children who have not yet entered school. Without access to child care while their mothers work, school-age children may lack supervision, constructive activities, and chances to develop positive relationships with adults and peers. Missing such supports can contribute to behavior problems, poor school adjustment, and limited social competence. (See the article by Vandell and Shumow in this journal issue.)

Crime Prevention

The most recent youth crime statistics reveal that the peak hours for violent juvenile crime and victimization are between 3:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M.3 These hours coincide with the hours when parents are at work and children are out of school. Awareness of the risk children face during these hours has prompted efforts by local police departments and crime prevention groups to keep school-age children and youths occupied and off the streets after school. Participation in positive, goal-directed activities may lessen young people's engagement in risky behaviors and reduce the likelihood that they will drop out of school.4 For younger children, school-age child care can have similar benefits. (See the article by Vandell and Shumow in this journal issue.)

Educational Reform

After-school programs have also come to be seen as a vehicle for promoting educational aims. A recent national opinion poll found that in addition to providing supervision and safety, voters see such programs as a way to help youths master new skills (including computer and technology skills), to provide tutoring, to create excitement about learning, and to prepare children for a productive future.5 Educators spurred by pressures to raise lagging academic achievement among school-children, especially the poor, see school-based after-school programs as providing more time for academic instruction that can bolster student performance. Poor children now lack access to the varied learning opportunities available to middle-class children, but new funding for after-school programs could begin to address this need.

Future Directions: Do We Know Where We're Heading?

The new public support for school-age programs comes at a time when the school-age field has achieved a new level of professionalism and purpose, but the new interest raises questions about how crucial choices and decisions will be made. Until now, after-school programs were operated largely by the private sector, while schools might provide space to the programs or bus children to them. Recent funding initiatives such as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, however, have placed local school systems in the driver's seat. Policy tensions are inevitable when the agendas of new stakeholders eager to solve a host of societal and educational problems clash with the beliefs long held by the school-age child care advocates who built the system of child development services that exists today.6

What areas will need to be considered, and what questions will need to be asked, in developing the policies that will guide progress into the twenty-first century? The rest of this commentary identifies crucial policy issues in five areas: program goals and content, delivery systems, staffing, funding, and regulation.

Program Goals and Content

Research has demonstrated that out-of-school time programs have the potential to contribute to many societal goals. But will political agendas result in programs that are custodial in nature or in programs that emphasize academic achievement but not children's emotional and social well-being? Will appropriate programs be developed for older school-age children and youths? How can programs meet the needs of children and youths with special needs or limited English proficiency? Reaching consensus on the nature and quality of programs will be perhaps the most challenging and necessary task.

Over the past 20 years, expanded understanding and refined practices in the school-age field have led to programs that meet the unique out-of-school time needs of children—particularly children of elementary-school age. To succeed in school and in life, children need to learn and develop in many ways. They need a different pace after school. They need the chance to practice cognitive and academic skills gained through school in applied projects. They need to exercise their growing sense of identity and independence to develop self-motivation, discipline, responsibility, and direction in their lives. They need to learn how to get along with others, resolve conflicts without violence, and develop a sense of what it means to live within a community. They need contact with caring adults who can provide comfort and emotional support to help insulate them from stresses in their lives. They need a chance to develop healthy bodies, express their creativity, and simply play and unwind. The question is whether local school systems, as they design new programs, will draw upon this deep understanding and experience within the existing school-age field.

Delivery Systems

The out-of-school time field is currently populated by a myriad of program types, program locations, and administering agencies: nonprofit community-based child care programs, local public school systems, private or public recreation agencies, and others. An emerging facet of the field offers specialized school-age activities and supervision through for-profit agencies, many of which are national chains.7

With funding programs like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, school systems will have the responsibility for determining how, where, and by whom out-of-school time programs will be offered. Will school systems include the existing network of programs in delivering the new services? Many successful collaborative models exist that build on the respective strengths and resources of all partners to develop a communitywide system of out-of-school time services. Will schools finance and engage in such partnerships if they are not required to do so?


An escalating crisis in hiring and retaining qualified personnel currently confronts the school-age field. Achieving a high-quality program requires skilled staff with training in child and adolescent development, program management, and family-focused programming, but even programs that can pay decent salaries and benefits struggle to overcome turnover rates among staff that may exceed 60% per year.

The increasing involvement of schools in delivering after-school programs will raise new challenges regarding staffing and could lead to an inequitable two-tiered system. Teachers' unions have shown interest in after-school programs as an additional source of jobs for classroom teachers. To assume these positions, however, classroom teachers should be required to have the specialized expertise needed to plan and implement quality out-of-school time programming. A new set of professionally recognized roles and affiliated certifications in school-age programs could be established, opening a career path for both certified teachers and qualified after-school program staff.


A recent 12-state survey revealed after-school program weekly costs that ranged from $5 to $68 per child. The total cost per school year ranged between $2,652 and $2,925 per child.8 A national study conducted in 1991 found that the overwhelming majority of programs relied heavily on parent fees, and that 86% of parents paid the full fees for their enrolled children.9 Not surprisingly, given these figures, low-income children are the least likely to be enrolled.

A variety of funding streams exist that could be tapped to support programs directly or to help parents pay program fees. Examples include the Community Development Block Grant that local officials can now use to pay for after-school programs, the Child Care Development Block Grant, and assorted public and private financing schemes. To maximize the value of these resources, program guidelines should encourage collaborative financing efforts and should also support the infrastructure necessary to uphold a consistent, high-quality system.

Regulation and Accreditation

Researchers who have studied programs available in typical communities warn that not all programs are rewarding for children and that much more attention must be paid to program quality. (See the article by Vandell and Shumow in this journal issue.) One element of an infrastructure to support program quality is regulation through child care licensing, but many of the providers entering the field are unaccustomed to complying with these requirements. For instance, schools have traditionally been exempt from licensing, and for-profit firms that define their product as education rather than child care also avoid regulation. As a result, other tools for improving quality are also needed. Professional accreditation offers an alternative means of recognizing program quality and pressing providers to meet not just basic but also high-quality standards. Some form of oversight is necessary to assure parents that school-age programs are safe, accountable, and developmentally oriented.


Establishing a comprehensive system of out-of-school time programs that meets the needs of children and youths and that accomplishes key social goals will be an important but complex task. Both school systems and community-based programs have offered school-age care, but quality has not been a given in either sector. Plagued by years of a policy vacuum, slow to come to consensus about its goals and purposes, and faced with a continuing lack of appropriate space, financing, and staff training, the school-age field stands to benefit greatly from new resources such as those promised in a bipartisan action by Congress in 1998. The convergence of strong interests in out-of-school time also makes it likely that public attention and financial support for out-of-school time programs will be sustained. It is therefore critical that policymakers proceed carefully to design programs that will truly meet the needs of the children and youths they intend to serve, while building a system of high-quality out-of-school time programs that will endure.

End Notes
  1. Seligson, M., Genser, A., Gannett, E., and Gray, W. School-age child care: A policy report. Wellesley, MA: School-Age Child Care Project, Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1983.
  2. U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means. 1998 green book: Background material and data on programs within the jurisdiction of the Committee on Ways and Means. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998, p. 661, Table 9-1.
  3. Fox, J.A., and Newman, S. After-school crime or after-school programs: Tuning into the prime time for violent juvenile crime and implications for national policy. Washington, DC: Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, 1998.
  4. Zill, N., Nord, C., and Loomis, L. Adolescent time use, risky behavior, and outcomes: An analysis of national data. Rockville, MD: Westat, September 11, 1995.
  5. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Poll finds overwhelming support for after-school enrichment programs to keep kids safe and smart. Press release. Flint, MI: The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, September 24, 1998. Available online at press_release.htm.
  6. Boyle, P., and Wolfson, J. Youth agencies clamor to stay after school. Youth Today (July/August 1998) 7:1.
  7. Pekow, C. Academic enrichment: The new school-age option. Day Care U.S.A. Newsletter (September 1, 1997) 26:18.
  8. Calculation by National Institute on Out-of-School Time for the Child Care Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Unpublished.
  9. Seppanen, P., deVries, D., and Seligson, M. National study of before- and after-school programs. Washington, DC: Office of Policy and Planning, U.S. Department of Education, 1993.