The Bloomberg administration is poised to make sharp cuts to the primary source of government funding for hundreds of free after-school programs that currently serve about 53,000 children across the city. Just two years ago, the city's "Out-of-School Time" or OST program received more than $117 million in city funds and served more than 87,000 kids. This fiscal year, the program was reduced to $90 million in city dollars. And now, a recent contract proposal from the administration indicates that, in 2013, the program will be cut to just under $70 million. Advocates say the reduction will nearly halve the number of program slots available to city kids.
"The proposed decrease is just going to be devastating to the system at a time when there is such a high demand," said Kathleen Fitzgibbon, senior policy analyst at the Federation for Protestant Welfare Agencies, which represents 20 of the more than 400 community agencies that currently run the after-school programs. The cuts would be hard not only on the children shut out, she said, but for their families, who rely on the programs for childcare.
"What are working parents going to do?" she asked. "Will they lose their jobs?"
Fitzgibbon said she is also concerned about the jobs lost to providers. "Since 2009 we've seen the loss of five thousand jobs as a result of cuts."
Cathleen Collins, deputy chief of staff at the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which distributes funding for the program, said in an email that one reason for the anticipated cut in slots is that the cost per child is expected to increase.
"In the new RFP, all programs will be required to provide services both during the school year and over the summer. The average price per participant for services is therefore expected to be higher than in the past. In addition, the new RFP sets out a rigorous program model with a strong focus on academics, including the requirement of an education specialist in every program. In recognition of the cost of high-quality services that will yield the positive outcomes we want for our young people, DYCD has increased the maximum price per participant that providers can propose, which necessarily reduces the number of participants that may be served."
Collins said it is too soon to know how many kids would lose services as a result of the funding cuts, as the number of program slots will depend on the proposals that the city receives. She also cautioned that there "are still some budgetary issues at play."
Norah Yahya, a policy analyst for United Neighborhood Houses of New York, maintained that the current situation is different from the usual back-and-forth that organizations engage in with the mayor at budget time. "It's dire," she said. "Cuts of this magnitude to services are not usual."
Programs supported by OST after-school funding are free, and offer academic support, cultural activities and healthy snacks for children after school hours and during school holidays and summer. When the contracts were restructured in 2005, Mayor Bloomberg described the program as a "long overdue" means of providing supervision and enrichment to kids who have nowhere else to go after 3pm. "Our new Out-of-School Time system will better serve children and working parents by engaging youth at precisely the times of the day when they are likely to be home alone or are most vulnerable," he said.
Vickie Lopez is a medical secretary at New York Hospital whose two daughters, ages five and seven, had been attending a city-funded after-school program since they began kindergarten. Last year, program reductions meant they were no longer able to get spots, she said. "I cried," Lopez remembered. She was placed on a waiting list, but said she never heard anything more.
Finally a friend of a friend offered to watch the girls for $150 a week, three hours a day. "It was a very, very rough year for me," said Lopez. She said at times she was forced to bring one of her kids to work with her out of desperation.
A 2011 report by Policy Studies Associates analyzing 10 after-school providers funded by the program found that 84 percent of youth enrolled were black or Latino, nearly one-quarter were English Language Learners, and 18 percent were special education students.
Contracts for the revamped program are due to start in September of 2012 and will last three years. They are funded almost exclusively with city tax revenue, with a small amount coming from the state.
The after-school cuts come at the same time as proposed steep reductions in the availability of government-funded childcare slots for preschool-aged kids, following the loss of federal funds for those programs. They also come just four months after Mayor Bloomberg announced the launch of the Young Men's Initiative, billed as an effort to reduce "the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men." Over three years, the mayor has committed a public-private partnership to creating more than $127 million in programs to "connect young men to educational, employment, and mentoring opportunities."
Yahya said the after-school programs are particularly important for low-income black and Latino youth. "This isn't just a babysitting club." In addition, she said, many of the programs make a point of hiring people from the communities they serve, which allows kids to have a mentor who understands where they are from. "The children can see themselves in their mentors, in working adults that care about them and are successful."
"I'm fearful for what the future holds for youth services, as the pot for them gets smaller and smaller," she added. (The city cut DYCD's total budget by close to $40 million this year.) Programs, said Yahya, are now so stripped down that new cuts likely cannot be absorbed through reductions in supplemental services. "A lot of specialties have already been eliminated. They're down to the marrow."