How Policymakers Can Support Equal Learning Opportunities Beyond the Bell
Out-of school learning allowances could close the enrichment gap for low-income families—and may help with other gaps, too
Ashley Jochim and Travis Pillow, Center on Reinventing Public Education
Students have unequal access to out-of-school learning
Two decades of school reform have sought to address educational inequality by “fixing” schools. And yet, students increasingly rely on experiences outside traditional K-12 schools to prepare them for success in life.
Families understand the value of sports and recreational programs, music and art lessons, and tutors and coaches.The proof is their investments. The wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. households spend $9,000 annually on enrichment for their children, compared to less than $1,000 for families in the bottom quintile. This gap has grown steadily, with affluent families tripling their investments since the 1970s.
Right now, our education system relegates these consequential learning opportunities to the periphery. For students in under-resourced schools, or whose parents lack the resources to pay for them, they are largely left to chance. These students have to be lucky enough to live in a school that offers rich learning experiences or to obtain a scholarship that lets them attend a summer camp or participate in afterschool enrichment. Summer and other breaks remain an academic dead zone for many students—particularly those whose parents can’t afford to pay for enrichment programs.
According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, children of wealthy parents are substantially more likely to have participated in sports, done volunteer work, taken music, dance or art lessons, and participated in religious instruction or youth groups. Just 7 percent of children attend summer camp, compared to nearly 40 percent of high-income children. In addition to their intrinsic value for families, these activities can help instill positive character traits like tolerance and empathy.
To date, education programs have not addressed the “enrichment gap.” At best, existing solutions are incomplete. Learning opportunities during breaks are not always open to all students. Some may provide structured academic learning, but deny students non-academic enrichment opportunities likely to benefit them. In-school programming, like year-roundschooling, vacation academies, extended school days, or school-based art and music lessons can be effective, but are vulnerable to budget cuts, given the view that enrichment activities are outside the scope of core academics K-12 schools must provide. Government, nonprofit, and for-profit providers have sought to fill the gap by providing scholarships to low-income families that apply. These create burdensome paperwork requirements for families who might tap opportunities at more than one provider and artificially limit family access to the full array of enrichment opportunities offered in their communities.
A policy agenda designed to equalize access to the “shadow education system” — including after school enrichment, summer learning, and one-time, informal experiences like theater trips that can contribute to positive academic outcomes—must address the out-of-pocket spending disparity, and allow lower-income families to make choices with the same flexibility as their affluent peers. For that reason, we propose an education program that would give lower-income families access to an enrichment allowance to support their children’s education and childcare needs outside the regular school day and year.
This proposal has the potential to unite parental choice advocates on the political right with equity advocates on the left. It offers a potential middle ground between a school voucher proposal advocated by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, which would have allowed vouchers to be used for enrichment programming, and an expansion of afterschool programming advocated by U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
However, while simply offering parents enrichment accounts may help address spending disparities, we believe it is not sufficient to meet the out-of-school learning needs of underserved families. Policymakers must also build the necessary infrastructure—information, guidance and support—to help all students take advantage of opportunities and build connections between out-of-school experiences, in-school experiences, and community life.
The Vision: Enrichment allowances to close the gap
We envision states or localities creating enrichment allowance programs. Families with eligible children would have accounts, worth several thousand dollars. When they apply for summer camp, they could pay for the experience with their accounts. If they wanted to take a trip to a theatrical performance or an art museum, they could pay for it with a debit card. If they wanted to enroll in an afterschool program, their account would cover the fees.
Parents could log onto an online system, like the BluePrint4Summer program currently operating in Colorado and Missouri or Chicago’s City of Learning, and browse among the full range of eligible enrichment opportunities for their students, including:
- Theaters and performing arts centers
- Summer camps
- Afterschool providers
- Art and music lessons
- Science, nature and technology programs
- Sports and recreational programs
- Internships and career-based learning
- Libraries and literacy programs
The online platform could also allow parents to mix and match activities tailored to their children’s interests and learning goals, and fit their fees into a budget. It could also allow students to track their learning experiences, mark learning milestones through badges, connect with fellow program participants or adults.
Some of the parent’s expenditures could receive automatic approval, and be purchased directly through the online platform, or in-person using a debit card. Other expenditures may require approval from the program administrator. If parents had money left over at the end of the year, they could roll those expenditures over for future years. When students finish high school, any money left over in their accounts could be converted to college savings accounts or expended on other dependents of the same family, or donated to a scholarship pool for other families.
- Analysis – We Need a New Way to Talk about Educational Equity: From Achievement Gaps to Out-of-School Enrichment, Postsecondary Preparation & Beyond (The 74), Link
- The Future of Education: How Cities Can Leverage Community Assets, Social Networks, and Personal Passions in Extending Their Learning Systems Beyond the Classroom (The 74), Link
- How a proposal for flexible funding can help families close the enrichment gap (Brookings Institute), Link
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Pathway 2 Tomorrow: Local Visions for America’s Future (P2T) matches responsive and agile education policy solutions with the needs of states and local communities.
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