Who would have ever thought that the term March Madness referred to more than just a basketball tournament? With the Trump Administration, however, madness is second nature, regardless of the month on the calendar.

Last week, we found out that March Madness also refers to the Trump budget process and the cruel, vindictive, and mean-spirited nature of the people who are at war with the sick, the poor, the elderly, and kids. All of these constituencies deserve advocacy as they are caught in the ruthless tactics of the unfeeling budget cutters. Please understand, however, that as an educator, I must first put my passion and energy to illuminate the harm this perverted form of March Madness has inflicted on young people.

Sure, the Washington Post headline Trump budget casualty: After-school programs for 1.6 million kids. Most are poor got the attention of many readers. But it was this cartoon by the great Mike Luckovich that jolted me and others into the realization that what we are up against is the Trump War on Kids, and the first casualty in his drawing are the after-school programs that otherwise assist young learners.


Certainly, Big Bird and PBS are in the mix as well, but in particular, it is the program called 21st Century Community Learning Centers that seems to be in the crosshairs of Mick  Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and his fellow ideologues who intend to kill or starve domestic programs to feed the military, as the cartoon amply demonstrates.

At this point, it is only proper for me to disclose the reasons for my intense interest in this program.

In 2002, I received a call from the U.S. Department of Education inquiring about my availability to serve as a panel chair to direct the reading and scoring of federal grants for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a program I was not familiar with at the time. (To this day, I don’t know how someone in Washington got my name or curriculum vitae that prompted the call.)

After receiving some additional information about the 21st Century program and my responsibilities to the Department, I agreed to fly to Chicago and work over a weekend in May with an impressive panel of 15 people from around the country. As it turned out, the work was grueling in that every grant had to be read by multiple readers, scored, and discussed. If the range of the scoring showed wide variance, there was additional reading and discussion so that the scoring reflected a clearer result.

Therein lies the rest of the story. Since I had overall responsibility for one of the panels, I wound up reading about 50 applications, all thick with detail to justify the need for the program in a particular community.

What I read was deeply moving, and that experience remains with me to this day.

All of us took our work seriously, and we worked late. In fact, none of us left the building until Saturday evening, when we walked as a group across the hotel parking lot to go to dinner and get some fresh air.

What bonded us to work like demons in reviewing the piles of applications and exhibits was the evidence we read about poverty and the need for young children to have added learning opportunities to supplement the  level of education they were receiving in their community’s schools.

Fifteen years later, I remember the vivid narratives of some of those applications.

One application described an area of Mississippi where there was nothing to see for miles except catfish farms. No libraries or community centers equipped with things that children could play with. No art galleries where children could visit and explore the world, fuel for the imagination.

No, not even trees to break a monotonous landscape.

We read applications from across the country, even from Puerto Rico and Guam. Again, the vivid narratives that described the world of children and the socio-economic and learning challenges they faced, were compelling.

How often do we think of how our fellow citizens, the children of Mississippi, Puerto Rico, and Guam, let alone Chicago or an Indian reservation, are experiencing the 21st Century – not the name of the grant, mind you, but of life itself?

Inspired by my experience at an airport hotel in Chicago, I wrote a 21st Century grant a few months later and was able to secure multi-year funding for several Ohio school districts so that hundreds of children could have extended learning opportunities that assist in their socio-emotional and cognitive development. Learning does not have to end at the afternoon dismissal bell, to be sure.

When I saw OMB Director Mulvaney’s outrageous comments about after-school and school nutrition programs, I contacted a former colleague, Kathy McWatters, an experienced administrator of after-school programs in central Ohio, for an update on what 21CCLC does in assisting young learners.

“Our programs help children and their families by reinforcing their academic and socio-emotional development with extended learning opportunities,” she told me. “These include tutoring, academic enrichment, cultural education, health and nutrition programs, character education programs, community service learning opportunities and recreational activities.”

McWatters, in marked contrast to the ideologue Mulvaney, who in his March Madness would sacrifice the needs of poor children in Mississippi, Chicago, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Ohio so that billionaires can receive ever larger tax cuts, informed me about the program research and outcomes:

Numerous studies have shown over the years that the participation of at-risk students in after-school programs improves non-academic indicators, chronic absenteeism, and student discipline incidents. Students in after-school programs have better attendance, behavior, grades and test scores compared to their non- participating peers. In fact, research shows that kids in after-school programs go to school more, see improvements in their behavior, and increase their likelihood of graduating. We provide safety and supervision in the after-school hours and by linking kids with mentors who discourage negative behaviors like drug and alcohol use.

McWatters knows what she is talking about, unlike Mulvaney and his ilk. She knows about outcomes, he thinks only of incomes – and how to increase tax refunds for those who don’t live near catfish farms.

Yes, we’ve heard all of this before from apparatchiks who talk about outputs and yields but are devoid of thinking about inputs – the investments needed to produce the results they demand.

The flap over draconian cuts in after-school and nutrition programs reminds me of what happened in 1981, during the early days of the Reagan Administration. After more than $1 billion was slashed from the school lunch program, the suggestion was made to “accept catsup as a fruit/vegetable when used as an ingredient.” Whether deserved or not, the Reagan administration bore the onus of thinking about cutting school lunches as a way to support the expansion of the navy by bringing World War II-era battleships out of mothballs.

If anything, Mulvaney, in his zeal to cut, slash, and destroy programs that help children learn as a result of participation in nutrition and after-school programs, does reinforce the observation that Republicans are those people who care about children from conception to birth. After that, they’re on their own.

For those kids who are served meals in schools and have mentors in after-school programs to help them develop into literate, caring, and healthy citizens, Trump and Mulvaney say it’s time to hold the pickle and the lettuce.

Make that catsup too. It’s March Madness, and like 1981, we have a new Republican administration that’s ready to feed everything and everybody – except poor children.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.