Budget cuts could leave kids home alone

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In Pennsylvania 26 percent of children in grades K-12 are responsible for taking care of themselves after school. These children spend an average of seven hours per week without adult supervision.

In Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget, out-of-school programs in Allegheny County could lose up to $1.5 million due to reductions in childcare funding for school age children. At a forum hosted by Govern For Kids on May 20, Pennsylvania State Rep. Jake Wheatley met with non-profits and concerned citizens to discuss the possible ramifications of these cuts.

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GOVERN FOR KIDS—Jake Wheatley addresses the crowd with his daughter by his side. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“Kids need those programs. For a lot of parents (out-of-school programs) are their last hope,” Wheatley said. “If you look at it, teenage crime and teenage pregnancy, it happens between the hours of four and seven. (Out-of-school programs) offer a safe haven for our youth during those hours.”

Govern For Kids is a non-partisan initiative in southwestern Pennsylvania that rallied support for children and youth during the 2010 campaign for governor. They have since continued their efforts to hold Gov. Corbett accountable on policies related to early care and education, K-12 education, children’s health, afterschool, dropout re-engagement, college access and child welfare.

“Out-of-school programs are a vital part of a child’s education,” said Robert Nelkin, president of United Way of Allegheny County. “These programs keep kids engaged and motivated to learn, and help them succeed in school and life. Budget cuts that would eliminate this programming would have severe negative consequences for kids and their communities.”

Wheatley shared his experience with after-school programs as a child through a neighborhood Boys and Girls Club. He said persuading other representatives to allocate funds for after-school programs as opposed to saving it for a “rainy day fund” could be difficult if they have not seen the benefits they provide first hand.

“The task is to convince those people in Harrisburg and their experiences are different. Unfortunately, I said this two years ago, that if this wasn’t a rainy day, I didn’t know what being wet felt like,” Wheatley said. “How do you communicate with people who have different experiences, who may not have been touched by an out-of-school program. This is a critical time to communicate with the governor first. If you don’t stay active, what you see now will be closer to what you get.”

The forum was co-sponsored by University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, the United Way of Allegheny County, Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time, and the Sarah Heinz House. Although state funds make up a large portion of out-of-school program budgets, non-profit organizations like these operate programs through the help of Pittsburgh’s many foundations.

“Without men and women like you, there’d never be men and women like me. The foundation community right now has been doing a great job to collaborate,” Wheatley said. “It’s not just on foundations. It’s on the residents. What can they be doing? The first step is at least letting the politicians know this is valued and it should be a higher priority.”

Money for out-of-school programs comes from a variety of state funding streams including the Department of Education, Department of Labor and Industry, Department of Public Welfare, Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, and the Department of Community and Economic Development.

“We don’t have to convince Rep. Wheatley. We have to convince his colleagues,” said Raymond Firth, director of policy initiatives for the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development. “There’s no line item in the budget. What we see is a significant reduction of early childhood funding and a lot of after-school programs for children are funded through that. The way these budgets have come down, we’re looking at a 50 percent cut to funding across Allegheny County for after-school programs.”

Other speakers shared success stories of after-school and summer programs that have made a positive impact. Lauren Bryne, executive director of Lawrenceville United has used the organization to educate both children and parents.

“Our crime has decreased since we started focusing on the youth by 56 percent. These youth programs have worked for us. A community cannot thrive if you’re not focusing on the youth,” Bryne said. “We really focused on educating families, telling them how these cuts will affect them, because unfortunately they’re not always in the these rooms where these conversations are happening.”

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