How a proposal for flexible funding can help families close the enrichment gap

Visiting school children stream past, as others sit under "Dippy", the moulded resin replica of a fossilised Diplodocus in the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London January 29, 2015. One of Britain's most-loved museum exhibits, the skeleton-cast of Dippy the Diplodocus dinosaur at the Natural History Museum in London, is to be replaced, much to the distress of its many fans. The museum announced on Thursday that Dippy, who has graced its cathedral-like central hall for 35 years, will make way for the bones of a blue whale that has been hanging in a different hall since 1938.  REUTERS/Andrew Winning (BRITAIN - Tags: SOCIETY ENVIRONMENT TRAVEL) - GM1EB1T1L4001

In education policy debates, we often talk about inequality as if it was primarily driven by learning that happens—or doesn’t happen—in schools.

But out-of-school learning matters too. Sports and recreational programs can cultivate teamwork, passion, and grit. Music and art lessons can help develop tolerance and empathy. Museum and theater trips can boost academic achievement and enhance wellbeing. Tutors and out-of-school academic programs can teach basic and advanced skills.

Perhaps the strongest testament to the value of these outside experiences is the amount of money affluent families spend on them: The wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. households spend $9,000 annually on enrichment for their children. And this “enrichment gap” appears to be growing, with affluent families tripling their investments since the 1970s.

We believe it’s time for state, federal, and local policymakers to look for ways to close this gap. We propose offering lower-income families with an allowance to customize enrichment experiences based on their children’s needs and interests. (Last year, our proposal to create these accounts, offered in response to Pathway 2 Tomorrow’s call for innovative education policy proposals, was one of 24 chosen for further development.) Versions of this idea have been floated before. Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has called attention to the enrichment gap and proposed a unique form of voucher to close it. Florida lawmakers created a reading scholarship program that offers supplemental vouchers aimed specifically at reading enhancements.

While the concept of enrichment allowances is relatively straightforward to propose, and has the potential to bridge some of the ideological and substantive divides that currently hamstring education policy debates, translating it into practice raises some complex issues.

First, where should the money come from?

There are several potential sources of support. Currently, the federal government spends roughly $1.2 billion on an after-school program that does not appear to be fulfilling its potential. In 2015, Mark Dynarski noted that rigorous studies show after-school programs do not meaningfully improve academic outcomes and may actually worsen student behavior. Dynarski suggested folding the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program into existing childcare programs, since that is how many families take advantage of the program. Since then, more ideologically conservative voices, including the Trump administration, have called for eliminating the program, but members of Congress from both parties haven’t gone along with that idea.

However, a recent RAND report found out-of-school programs often yield measurable benefits for participating children, though the benefits often are not captured by conventional academic measures. There may be an opportunity to maximize these benefits by putting program funds to new uses, rather than eliminating them.

Right now, the 21st Century program spends about $720 per student to support out-of-school enrichment for 1.7 million students, though the Department of Education acknowledges these estimates may not be reliable, and attendance is sporadic for many families. Our proposal offers an alternative. When states receive grants from the program, Congress could offer a choice: Provide funding for after-school centers, as they currently do, or offer a per-pupil share of funding to families—an allowance they can use to create customized enrichment experiences for their children.

A voucher of $720 per student would not cover the full cost of many summer enrichment or after-school programs for a full year. But it likely would help induce states or schools to repurpose some of their existing funding streams to create enrichment scholarship programs for parents. For example, Jacksonville, Florida, spends about $550 for a slot in a summer camp, and $3,000 for a slot in a yearlong after-school program. Students with low standardized test scores in reading can now apply for scholarships worth approximately $500.

The federal funding could help encourage the city to merge these funding streams to support parent-controlled accounts, with lower-income families qualifying for progressively larger funding amounts. Funding could also support the supply side of enrichment by expanding community amenities, like parks, museums, and recreation centers, which are often concentrated in areas where fewer economically disadvantaged families live.

Some families currently sending their children to 21st Century Community Learning Centers may have other free or low-cost after-school options, and wish to use their allowances on summer programs, or music lessons and trips to the symphony. Other families with transportation challenges might use the allowance to get their children to and from enrichment activities. The idea would be to encourage state and local investments that would ensure low-income families have the flexibility to choose among a wide range of out-of-school learning experiences—just like wealthy families do.

This flexibility is important. The research literature shows summer programs can improve academic outcomes for disadvantaged students, but overall results are mixed, and these programs are most effective when students attend regularly. Some families might want to take advantage of such programs. Others might not be able to send their children to school-based summer programs, but might see benefits in lower-cost, home-based reading programs. And they might want to supplement those programs with other activities aimed at cultivating their children’s non-academic interests.

It will also be important to provide parents with transparent information about these diverse options—and their relative effectiveness. The Supplemental Educational Services program under No Child Left Behind offers a cautionary tale. Participating families did not have access to information about the tutoring options available to them. For enrichment accounts to work, parents will need online information portals where they can research options. These might include parent reviews, services provided (e.g., special education accommodations), and academic and non-academic outcomes, where available.

Administrators of these allowances would need to ensure that funding is spent appropriately. A trip to the museum might qualify as an expenditure; a purchase at the gift shop might not. Summer camps would need to meet staffing and safety standards to qualify for funding. Administrators of health savings accounts have had to tackle this problem, ensuring families can use their debit cards on prescriptions at the pharmacy, but not on groceries at the same store. And administrators of some education savings account programs have placed limits on spending. For example, parents who use Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs can only use the funding to purchase one tablet or computer in a specified time frame, and therapy providers must meet state standards before parents can use program funds for their services.

Getting the right practices and guidelines in place will require thoughtful experimentation. Local pilot programs would allow state and local governments to figure out appropriate safeguards before taking programs to scale.

Other worthwhile policies might increase the chances for success of these pilot programs. Cities and school districts should consider what programs, providers, and opportunities already exist in their communities, and whether all families have equitable access. School system leaders should assess the proliferation of online platforms designed to help families navigate enrichment opportunities, and evaluate gaps in the information available. Some families might need in-person assistance, expanding “navigator” services to cover enrichment and out-of-school learning—something organizations like ReSchool Colorado are trying.

We believe our proposal can help bridge some existing divides in education politics by giving families more choices and addressing a potent source of inequality in education. Giving parents more equitable access to out-of-school learning can also help teachers, who see the importance of what happens beyond the bell, and know that schools cannot give students all the skills they need over the course of 180 days without help during the other 185.