Kids > Bombs

There seems to be two unassailable truths when it comes to policymaking and government budgeting: 1) military spending is sacrosanct and 2) education related spending, however much it’s praised during campaigning, is always a viable source of savings. Let us, for a moment, consider the case of a program called 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a U.S. Department of Education venture with a mission to enable “the creation of community learning centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools” [1]. Knowing nothing else about the program, this mission seems laudable and worthwhile. Children in need of academic support and assistance outside normal classroom hours can make use of these centers, take advantage of the resources they offer and continue developing their skills and increasing their knowledge. These are outcomes, I believe, most Americans, whatever their political affiliation or inclination, would say are positive and should be encouraged.

However, this and a multitude of similar programs are being targeted by a heavy-handed reactionary federal government that has made it clear its mission is to weed out supposedly wasteful and unproductive initiatives and rip them out of the nation’s ledgers. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21CCLC) program has recently fallen into the GOP’s crosshairs and, as a result, into the public’s awareness after Mick Mulvaney (Donald Trump’s personal budget assassin) decried it as a failure. He suggested that the American taxpayers had been duped into funding a program designed to propel young children towards higher achievement metrics and better jobs but that “we [the Trump administration] can’t prove that that’s happening”. The savings that would result from eliminating 21CCLC? Roughly $1.2 billion [2].

But let us ignore the price tag for a moment and let us examine the core of Mulvaney’s argument: that 21CCLC can’t be proven as effective and thus should no longer be on the books. A brief search of the Department of Education’s website provided some evidence to the contrary. According to a 2016 report compiled and published by the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (the office under which the 21CCLC is administered), the program saw improved grades in mathematics and English for nearly half of students (48.0% and 48.5%, respectively). Even more noteworthy, the majority of students participating in the after-school program showed improvements in in-class behavior and an even greater number improved homework completion and in-class engagement (56.8% and 65.2%, respectively). Standardized testing and evaluation improvements were, admittedly, more modest, but improvements were still reported. Although the program operates in all 50 states as well as territories, many states, for whatever reason, did not report their results and so could not be factored into the calculation [3]. However, it seems completely reasonable to assume that improvements in these states would reflect the trends in the reporting states. With this information in mind, I would be interested to hear what part of this program, in Mr. Mulvaney’s mind, is not working. There is no evidence, again according to the program’s own report, that these after-school opportunities are a detriment to student performance and all evidence seems to suggest that the support is beneficial to many or most of the participants. What is the threshold, in Mr. Mulvaney’s calculus, for success? Is it three out of four? Is it 85 percent? When does evidence of improvement become evidence of value? Perhaps this is a null argument and the administration actually has no interest in preserving funding for such programs whether they reap benefits or not.

If that is the case, then maybe we can make an argument that the 21CCLC program is overpriced and does not deliver an appropriate ROI. According to the Department of Education, the FY2016 budget appropriated about $1.143 billion for 21CCLC. This funding allowed for 52 awards to be granted averaging just under $22 million each [1].  The program provides support for almost 2 million American children and family members over the entire country and its territories. This money also helps pay for snacks and extracurricular activities such as cooking and exposure to basic robotics [2]. In the mind of most people, $1.143 billion seems like a very large number; it can be difficult grasping sums many times more than the average Powerball jackpot. Let us make this figure a bit more digestible. Based on the above FY2016 appropriation and dividing it by the reported 1.8 million students enrolled in 2014-15, the per student price tag comes to a paltry $635. If we were able to factor out administrative expenses, I’m sure the price would be even lower. What Mr. Mulvaney and his ilk are suggesting is that the federal government cannot afford to set aside $635 for an American child to attend 2 hours of daily after-school programming for a calendar year. Even if we set aside the premise and the evidence that the program does help students learn and improve their academic performance and take the position that 21CCLC acts basically as a government-funded daycare, we should ask why that is an issue? If parents and guardians are able to work a few extra hours a week without having to worry about childcare expenses or access, would that not improve the livelihood of that family, potentially making them more self-reliant, less stressed and in a better position to contribute to society and the economy? Isn’t that the goal of the conservative philosophy? Are Republican policymakers so averse to government spending on social welfare programs that they would throw out a relatively inexpensive education initiative for American children that has shown positive results simply to adhere to a partisan ideology?

At the beginning, I mentioned the sacrosanct nature of military spending. Donald Trump has made military spending increases a major goal of his spending plans, a position hardly new among Republican administrations. Mr. Trump wanted to increase Defense Department appropriations by $30 billion for the remaining fiscal year; Congress alloted about $15 billion [4]. We don’t need a calculator to see that this increase, even the smaller approved one, dwarfs the budget requirements for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program for nearly a decade. To bring the conservative “fiscal responsibility” argument even more into perspective, let us compare the cost of the 21CCLC to just one part of the Pentagon’s spending. According to the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller), the DoD expected to spend, in FY2016, over $11 billion on just 57 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft [5]. Consider how many years worth of 21CCLC funding could be purchased. Think about how many millions of children we could support, encourage and teach for the price of a few dozen military jets. Whatever one’s thoughts or feelings on military spending, I find it incomprehensible that policymakers would highlight a program like 21CCLC as a candidate for defunding while not even raising an eyebrow over the mammoth budget demands of the U.S. military leadership. I find it reprehensible that someone responsible for crafting a national budget would have the audacity to suggest that $635 a year to provide support for an impoverished American child is an unjustifiable expense while $193.2 million for one JSF is perfectly reasonable, even necessary.*

Military spending may wax and wane slightly depending upon the party in power, but the end result never changes: the United States Department of Defense always seems to have money for pet projects and systems that cost billions before they ever enter service. The DoD rarely has to defend, justify or “prove that that’s happening” because to hint that the military be held to the same fiscal responsibility standards that are imposed upon the rest of the government would be unpatriotic or not supporting the troops or endangering national security. These are all hollow arguments reactionaries roll out because they don’t want to curb the military-industrial complex’s appetite for cash and blood. Public figures, such as Donald Trump and Mick Mulvaney, should seriously consider the real calculations before eliminating programs such as 21st Century Community Learning Centers and they should certainly reconsider their priorities if they truly want a nation of educated, driven and competitive Americans for our future. If not, swaths of the underclass in this country will be barred from that future, doomed to provide an endless supply of grist for the military’s mill of death.

References

[1] “21st Century Community Learning Centers”. U.S. Department of Education. 26 October 2016. Online.

[2] Fessler, Pam. “Under Trump Budget, Nearly 2 Million Kids May Lose After-School Care”. NPR. 2 May 2017. Online.

[3] Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Overview of the 21st CCLC Annual Performance Data: 2014-2015”. U.S. Department of Education. 2016. Online.

[4] Herb, Jeremy. “Trump gets a $15 billion boost in defense spending”. WFMZ-TV News. 1 May 2017. Online.

[5] Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller)/ CFO. “Program Acquisition Cost By Weapon System”. United States Department of Defense. February 2015. Online.

Notes

* This figure is based off a rough calculation of the total dollars requested for the Joint Strike Fighter purchases (≈$11 billion) divided by the number of units requested (57). This price is significantly higher than the information available from Lockheed Martin, although the price they quote does not, to the best of my knowledge, include the Pratt & Whitney engine. More information available: F35.com

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