KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The Trump administration wants to eliminate an after-school program for poor children. It costs $1.2 billion a year. And Budget Director Mick Mulvaney says there is no evidence it works.
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MICK MULVANEY: When we took your money from you to say look, we're going to go spend it on an afterschool program, the way we justified it was these programs are going to help these kids do better in school and get better jobs. And we can't prove that that's happening.
MCEVERS: But participants say the evidence is clear to them. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: To Mary Beth Burkes, the administration's argument that her son's after-school program doesn't work is, well, uneducated.
MARY BETH BURKES: They do not live in rural America. And they don't live in the Appalachian Mountains.
FESSLER: But she does in Buchanan County, Va., a depressed coal mining region where 1 in 4 families lives in poverty and where her autistic son gets extra help after school at Riverview Elementary Middle School. Burke says for her and other parents it's a godsend.
BURKES: Having a safe place for them, I mean, because these - their parents work. There is no daycare here in this area.
FESSLER: So every day, about 80 children here stay after school as part of the 21st Century Community Learning Center's Program. It serves 1.8 million students nationwide. First, the kids get a healthy snack, then an hour of help with subjects like English and math and another hour doing something fun...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. You might need your steering to go a little less on the power side.
FESSLER: ...Which on this day means robotics. Three middle schoolers try to program a robot so it rolls across a table and delivers a package to just the right spot.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: It's so close.
FESSLER: Teachers here say that's the beauty of this program which is aimed at high-poverty, low-performing schools. Kids get to spend a lot of time helping each other do things they wouldn't otherwise do. Teacher Kay Ratliff pulls me aside and points to one boy in another room as he eagerly explains rational numbers to another child. She says the boy never talks in class during the day but thrives here.
KAY RATLIFF: He has a little bit of a speech impediment. And in front of his whole class, he's more self-conscious but he glows and he learns so much more.
FESSLER: Teachers here say grades and attendance are up for those in the program. They're still waiting for standardized test scores, but they think they'll be up, too. That's the big debate - how to measure the program's success.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office last week said the evidence isn't all that clear. There are signs it improved student behavior more than test scores. Opponents argue the program's little more than government-funded childcare.
LINDSEY BURKE: It's really not the responsibility of the federal government to manage after-school programs.
FESSLER: Lindsey Burke is director of education policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation. She says one of the most extensive studies of the program found no evidence that it improved academics.
BURKE: And there was no impact on homework outcomes for those students. And there were also some negative behavioral impacts, as well.
FESSLER: But supporters say more recent studies show just the opposite. Heather Weiss is co-director of the Global Family Research Project which compiles such evaluations. She says there's substantial evidence that children who participate in 21st Century programs can benefit greatly.
HEATHER WEISS: And those benefits include things that contribute to academic achievement and in-school success, you know, specific skills around math and literacy and then things like better attitudes to school and lower dropouts, better attendance.
FESSLER: And supporters point to other benefits in communities where resources are especially tight. Riverview parent Amy Bowen says the after-school program allows her to work. She couldn't afford to pay a babysitter $12 an hour. She also says her kids really like it there. When she recently came to pick up her daughters, her youngest didn't want to leave.
AMY BOWEN: Well, honey, do you want to stay and mommy go on and do what she needs to do?
FESSLER: The answer was a resounding yes.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Thank you, Mommy. Thank you, Mommy. Thank you.
FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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