The after-school registration date — May 9, 2022 — was long marked on Liz Baltaro’s calendar. A family medicine doctor in Durham, North Carolina, she felt acute pressure to land spots for her twin boys, then 7 years old, in their school district’s after-school program. Baltaro and her husband Ben have no parents or other relatives living nearby and no option to work remotely. Elementary school ends in the early afternoon, but she can’t leave her job until after 5 pm.
That day, Baltaro woke up before sunrise and started refreshing her phone. When applications finally opened roughly three hours later, she signed up, in between seeing patients. Reading the confirmation email at 9:17 am, she breathed a sigh of relief.
More than two months later, with the first day of school rapidly approaching, Baltaro received a strange, vague email, listing strategies Durham Public Schools was taking to “recruit and hire staff” and “accommodate waitlisted students.” She called the district and learned her kids — along with 720 other children — had been waitlisted. Amid a headline-making national labor shortage, the district needed to hire over 60 new employees to cover the demand.
“Our choices are either after-care or my husband forfeits his job, which really isn’t tenable for us,” Baltaro said. “Finding backup nannies and child care is very difficult — that market has changed. Even if you can afford hiring someone, you can’t find someone easily; fewer people are working.”
The after-school crisis her family found themselves in is not limited to one city or state. For working parents, the hours between the end of the school day and the end of the traditional workday leave a gap millions struggle to fill. Thousands of school districts offer no after-school options at all, and some communities have just a single nonprofit or church program available.
This year, filling that gap got even harder. Fewer spots and longer after-school waitlists have been reported all over the country, and more companies are rolling back the remote flexibilities they offered workers during the pandemic. The result is a difficult climate for parents who muddled exhaustedly through Covid school closures and hoped they’d find some stability when their kids finally headed back to their classrooms.
In Durham, parents demanded answers. School district administrators apologized for the inconvenience and cited the nationwide shortage of applicants, as large chain employers like Target, Starbucks, and Walmart continued to raise their wages and offered better benefits. (Starting wages for after-school workers in Durham was $16 an hour.)
But Durham had made other decisions that contributed to the mess. That summer, officials voted to delay start times for high schoolers and begin all elementary schools earlier, trying to make school buses more efficient and provide high schoolers with more time to sleep. Practically, though, it meant hundreds more kids ages 10 and under would be finishing school at 2:15 pm.
While parents recognized the tough hiring market, many felt frustrated by what seemed like a lack of leadership. Some of these problems, like increased demand from the schedule change, were foreseeable. But after-school child care so often remains an afterthought, leaving parents — in Durham and across the country — routinely scrambling.
About 8 million kids are enrolled in after-school programs today, but that’s less than a quarter of total demand, according to the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance. Research it led in early 2020, just before the pandemic, found that nearly 25 million more children would be enrolled in an after-school program if one were available to them, up from 19 million in 2014. The top-cited barrier to enrollment was money: 57 percent of parents reported that programs were too expensive. While about a quarter of parents pay nothing for after-school programs, of the 77 percent who do pay, the average cost per child stands at $100 per week.
Despite the unmet demand, there has been little public investment in after-school care, and most programs are financed through parent fees. The federal government allocated just $1.3 billion in after-school funding in 2022, and each year the vast majority of requests for federal grants are denied. State and local governments subsidize little on top. The one exception is California, which for years has spent more on after-school than all 49 states combined.
For kids wrestling with social isolation, steep mental health challenges, and historic declines in test scores, the dearth of post-pandemic after-school options has been a bitter pill to swallow. Researchers have long known that trauma and adversity can harm youth development, but studies show these neurological effects can be mitigated by caring relationships and safe environments. After-school programs are linked to other positive outcomes, including higher grades, school attendance, and graduation rates. One study found participating in after-school activities for at least two days per week was related to a lower likelihood of alcohol use, marijuana use, and skipping school. Other research found after-school programs associated with a lower likelihood of juvenile crime, which makes sense since juvenile crime peaks during the hours of 2-6 pm.
The contemporary after-school crisis is largely driven by indifference and inertia. Unlike traditional public schooling, there’s no national consensus on who’s responsible for after-school care. Where kids are supposed to go while it’s still the middle of the workday, after the school day ends, is left to busy, overwhelmed parents to figure out.
Indeed, back in Durham, families have had to just muddle through. Over the summer, Baltaro’s husband, Ben, found three days a week available at their local YMCA’s after-school program, which was more expensive than the school district option they had hoped for. The other two days, he negotiated with his boss to cut his hours so he could watch his kids.
Tracey Super-Edwards, the director of community education at Durham Public Schools, told me that by late November, the district had reduced their after-school waitlist to about 400 students, and had reduced their staff vacancies from 61 to nine. “We’re very proud of that,” she said, stressing they did this all without raising rates for families, despite inflation. Around that same time, Ben answered a robocall and learned district slots had opened up for his twins.
They took the offer but are already feeling anxious about next year, when their youngest child ages out of day care and the whole process starts anew.
“Our culture in America really encourages working, but we are not prioritizing working parents’ schedules,” said Baltaro. “Aftercare is a necessity if you work 40 hours a week.”
Hiring for seasonal part-time jobs always takes scrappy effort, but after-school program directors say recruiting and retaining workers for these jobs — which pay as low as minimum wage, average four hours per day, and generally provide no benefits — has gotten much harder since the pandemic.
A national survey of providers conducted by Edge Research at the end of 2021 found half of respondents were “extremely concerned” about hiring staff and staffing shortages. Another national survey led in the summer of 2022 by the EdWeek Research Center found similar results: Recruiting and retaining staff were by far the top challenges school principals and after-school leaders reported. Many say the labor pool that programs used to rely on evaporated during the Covid-19 pandemic and hasn’t returned.
“We have people who sign up for interviews and we call them and they never show up and we never hear from them again,” said Daniela Grigioni, the executive director of After-School All-Stars in Washington, DC. “They block us, ghost us, we don’t know what happened. We have people starting and quitting two weeks later because they find something else. It’s very difficult.”
The most common strategy providers say they’re using to attract new workers is raising pay: Over half of respondents told Edge Research they’ve increased wages, and 30 percent told Edweek Research Center the same. Other strategies include offering workers free child care, sign-on bonuses, more professional development, and additional paid time off. Still, there are often no bites to the job postings, even with these new incentives.
Jenna Andrews, the program director at Beyond the Bell, a popular network of 25 after-school programs in the Sioux City metropolitan area, has felt the intense strain of hiring over the last year.
It’s her 10th year leading the program and it’s never been this difficult to find qualified staff, Andrews says, as we sit together on a cold Monday afternoon in January.
The slow trickle of applications and the rapid turnover of hires has meant much longer waitlists for parents, since Beyond the Bell is regulated by a strict 1:15 staff-to-student ratio. By late November, they were serving about 900 kids, down from a pre-pandemic size of 1,200.
To compete for staff, Beyond the Bell has used federal pandemic aid to raise their wages twice over the last year — now up to $13 or $15 an hour, depending on the position. They’ve also started to offer retention bonuses, attendance-based bonuses, and a bonus for those new hires who complete their on-board training faster. Advertising is also a new expense: Beyond the Bell started running ads on the internet and local TV when their more reliable pool of college students in the area didn’t materialize.
“I would say it’s been pretty disheartening because we’ve tried to come up with all these things we think would work and it continues to not,” said Andrews, as we watched kids play red rover in the gym at Bryant Elementary School, one of Beyond the Bell’s sites in Sioux City. “Maybe it motivates some people for a little but then it just fizzles out.” Bryant Elementary has a waitlist of 20 students and lost a staff member who quit around Christmas. Network-wide, Andrews said they’ve gotten their waitlist down to 130.
“We’ve seen a few staff that leave to go to other jobs that can pay them more, or give them additional hours at a higher rate, and I don’t blame them at all,” added Stacia Hough, who works with Andrews in management. “It just stinks because they were really, really wonderful with the children.”
The bustling after-school program at Prescott Elementary school in Oakland, California, offers a vision for what a future of adequately funded after-school programs could look like.
California is the only state in the nation that has taken it upon itself to invest robustly in after-school care. For two decades, it has spent more than all 49 other states combined, and is marching forward to build a universal after-school system for all children.
While most after-school programs nationwide have no public money, Prescott benefits from three different public funding sources: two grants from the California legislature, plus Oakland grant money. The result has been more flexible program hours for parents, more competitive wages for workers, and enhanced activities for kids, ranging from robotics and dance lessons to culinary classes and tutoring.
Earlier this year, an infusion of new after-school state funding sent over $36 million to the Oakland Unified School District. As a result, Prescott site coordinator Pendeka Nimmer was able to raise starting wages for her after-school staff, from $17.50 an hour pre-pandemic to as high as $22 per hour. Oakland public schools also used federal academic recovery aid to help some after-school staff become newly full-time and eligible for benefits.
The competitive wages, Nimmer says, allowed them to get the word out and recruit better applicants. “Just coming out of Covid, we were getting a lot of interviews that were falling through and I felt like a lot of people were just doing the hiring process to keep their unemployment [benefits] going,” she said. Eighty students are currently enrolled in Prescott’s program, a large jump from years past.
“We’re able to fund after-school programs at every single school for the first time, and expand those programs to include 3- and 4-year-olds, all the way up to high school,” said Martha Peña, the after-school coordinator for Oakland public schools. The funds have also allowed Oakland to launch a new elementary school sports program every Saturday, where kids can play organized soccer, baseball, and other games for free — a rare alternative to pay-to-play youth sports leagues.
“I just signed an invoice for mariachi equipment!” exclaimed Peña with pride. “And we’re in conversations to start a marching band. With this money, we can really provide kids now with what they deserve.”
Officials in California now refer to after-school as “expanded learning” — a category that includes before-school programming as well as summer school.
“We’re not child care — which is important and has a critical role, but we’re beyond care,” said Heather Williams, the policy and outreach lead for the California AfterSchool Network, a statewide advocacy group. “The flip side is we’re not extended class time, either. Expanded learning is something different and intentional.”
California’s history with publicly funded after-school programs stretches back three decades, when youth advocates in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Diego began pressuring state lawmakers to take action. Their organizing eventually culminated in $50 million budgeted for after-school programming in 1997. Within five years, lawmakers bumped that up to $122 million.
Investments soared further thanks to Proposition 49, a successful 2002 ballot measure sponsored and largely funded by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would go on to serve as California’s governor. Ultimately, that aid, coupled with more limited federal after-school funds, led to a seven-fold increase in the number of schools providing publicly subsidized expanded learning in California, serving more than 900,000 students each year. But inflation and multiple increases in the state’s minimum wage put a strain on existing after-school programs, and upward of 40 percent of districts still offered no after-school option at all.
Then, in 2021, thanks to infusions of federal Covid-19 money and an unexpected budget surplus, California lawmakers announced a massive $5 billion increase to their after-school spending. It’s that increase that has proved to be such a game changer recently in Oakland.
“I had no idea that was coming, I learned about the expansion just like everyone else, watching the news and Newsom’s press conference,” Michael Funk, the top state official overseeing California’s expanded learning programs told me, as we sat together in his Sacramento office. “And so I had to start that afternoon thinking, ‘Holy shit, how am I gonna do this?’”
All told, California now budgets a little over $5 billion annually on before-school, after-school, and summer learning.
Funk is an unlikely government bureaucrat; originally an ordained minister, he left his church in the early 1990s to help launch an after-school program in San Francisco and advocate for statewide funding. In 2012, he was tapped to lead a new Afterschool Division at the state education department. Today, he manages a team of 45 employees and counts roughly 25 other leaders across the state — including Williams at the California Afterschool Network — working with him toward the vision of universal after-school.
Still, there are challenges. Not all school districts in California have been as eager as Oakland Unified to accept the new state funds for expanded learning; for some superintendents overwhelmed with other responsibilities, erecting new after-school programs effectively from scratch felt like more trouble than it’s worth. Funk has been working to persuade more districts that this opportunity is something they can handle.
And even with California’s unique political commitment and robust funding, staffing after-school programs remains tough in many communities, as many programs still pay at or just above minimum wage (which increased statewide in 2023 to $15.50 an hour.)
“For part-time after-school staff, if you’re [paying] under $20 an hour, it’s going to be hard for you to hire in California,” said Williams. “The number I hear a lot is that $20 for starting part-time is really the threshold that’s needed.”
A report published in November examining the 20 years since Prop 49’s passage emphasized that livable wages and benefits are key to expanded learning and essential to growing the state’s potential workforce, which is far more demographically representative of California’s youth than the state’s K-12 teachers. After-school workers are also more likely to speak the primary language spoken by their students and live in their communities.
Funk stressed to me that he doesn’t see after-school jobs ever being able to compete with big retailers on a dollar-for-dollar basis. “One of the messages I’ve been trying to really drive home is that if we’re trying to recruit people to the workforce by competing with Starbucks … is do you want to make a difference? Do you want to really support and change the lives of young people? Do you want to get into a job that could be the entry point for a career in education?”
Still, plenty of after-school advocates counter that the field cannot abandon the goal of competitive wages in favor of hoping for a virtuous do-gooder workforce motivated primarily by passion. That’s a recipe, they say, for waitlists, staff shortages, and instability.
In November, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona traveled to California to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Proposition 49. “I want to see a commitment at all levels — at the state, at the local level, to commit to after-school programs like I saw here today,” he said at the event.
But outside of California, expanding public funding for after-school programs has been slow. Last year Congress authorized a $30 million increase to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, the only major source of federal funding for after-school care, and Biden proposed a modest $21 million bump to it in his 2023 budget.
Advocates have been rallying for a $500 million federal increase so that communities can actually serve the 24.6 million children who would likely attend if programs were available.
Biden, for his part, has put some pressure on his education department. Last summer, he urged states to use their federal pandemic funds to support after-school and summer learning, prompting the first-ever federal education department campaign to promote those initiatives.
When I asked Cardona about the dearth of public funding for after-school, he stressed the need to “be creative” and look to partnerships with community-based organizations. “I know states are looking at mental health supports, and you know what provides mental health?” he asked. “Being part of a theater group, or a club where they feel connected to others.”
Yes, after-school is an academic tool, he added, but it’s also a safety tool. “We need to be thinking about it not only in terms of education funding but also municipal and state funding to reduce crime,” he said.
Public funding for after-school — particularly on the local level — sometimes runs into conflict with teacher unions, which would rather see additional money spent on the traditional school day, or at least go to district employees rather than after-school workers employed by nonprofit partners. “If I were talking to a labor union leader here at this table, I would stress that this is something that actually does not put [an] undue burden on the teachers and classified staff of your school,” said Jeff Davis, head of the California AfterSchool Network. “It actually enhances what they’re able to do, and you’re not only strengthening your school, your family services, but also your community at large.”
Some leaders say they’ve embraced a glass-half-full perspective regarding the future. “I’ve been in this for 19 years, and in that time funding has only gone up,” said Ben Paul, the president and CEO of After-School All-Stars, which was originally founded by Schwarzenneger in 1992. Still, Paul acknowledged it has been hard on the local and state level to get the investment communities need because there are so many other interest groups competing for resources.
Vermont is the closest to following in California’s footsteps. Republican Gov. Phil Scott has pushed to accommodate the 26,000 children who can’t currently get into after-school programs in the state, pitching it as a way to help Vermont’s labor force by aligning it with school schedules. Vermont’s state health commissioner has hailed after-school as a proven way to prevent substance misuse among kids. The state formed a task force and in 2021 published a final report about how to erect a universal program.
A few other politicians have leaned into the idea of after-school. In her most recent budget proposal, Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for lawmakers to expand state funding for before- and after-school by $50 million to help kids and parents. Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged this year to “build the best, most robust, free before-and-after-school program in the nation.”
Still, most other states continue to drag their feet. The Mott Foundation, a Michigan-based philanthropy, has issued some $350 million in grants over the last few decades to support after-school expansion, and currently convenes a 50-state network to help further that goal. “We’re working on it!” Grant, of the Afterschool Alliance, told me when I pressed about public funding.
Funk, the California education department official, said in his view it all comes down to advocacy and “leading with love” for kids and families. “That’s not fluffy stuff, it’s actually very hard work,” he said. “People could come up with all types of reasons for why they can’t do what we do in California. But we didn’t have any money when we first started.”
This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.