We live in a rapidly changing world, with new and exciting advances always right around the corner — from self-driving cars  to artificial intelligence. As an assemblymember representing the center of Los Angeles and a leader of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, we are both proud to live and work in this great region, which has always been a center for innovation and creativity, and is now home to growing high-, space- and bio-tech sectors. But we also know that we need make investments today to prepare our students for the fast-emerging knowledge-intensive industries of tomorrow — many of which we don’t even know about today.

One critical investment is in after-school programs, which serve more than 100,000 students throughout Los Angeles and more than half a million across the state of California. After-school programs not only keep children safe between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m., but also provide an opportunity for them to develop skills that help them succeed in school and in life. The afterschool setting offers a unique opportunity to engage students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) experiences that cultivate knowledge, analytical skills and life-long behaviors necessary for success in today’s economy, as well as tomorrow’s.

LA’s BEST Afterschool Enrichment program serves 25,000 unique and talented elementary school students who come from neighborhoods with the fewest resources and the greatest needs. The program provides interactive STEM programming for students — for example, robotics, coding, digital citizenship and science — providing all-important access to advanced learning opportunities on par with their more affluent peers. These programs help students develop critical thinking skills, learn to work collaboratively and flourish creatively. And L.A.’s BEST is just one of many high-quality and results-driven afterschool programs where students are developing these important STEM skills.

A recent report from STEM Ready America shows that students participating in STEM-based after-school programs showed both increased interest in science careers and gains in high-demand, 21st-century skills necessary for success in today’s (and certainly tomorrow’s) workforce. Simply put, afterschool STEM programming is another tool to prepare our students for careers in the knowledge- and IP-intensive industries, such as aerospace, alternative transportation, biosciences and digital media, that will drive our economy going forward.

Despite these clear benefits, afterschool programs in Los Angeles and across the state face a financial crisis. After more than a decade of stagnant state funding and dramatically rising costs, after-school programs received only a modest increase in state funding last year. But with costs continuing to rise faster than this very modest increase in budget allocation, a much greater investment in our youngest and most vulnerable residents will be needed. Without additional funding, after-school programs will face unsustainable deficits and be forced to reduce staff hours, training opportunities, enrichment activities and academic support. This puts STEM programming directly at risk of being cut, in addition to jeopardizing the entire afterschool system.

Young people need a safe place to be after school. But beyond that, they also deserve the same opportunities as their wealthier counterparts to engage in and be exposed to STEM activities that will help chart their path in today’s economy and beyond. In the neighborhoods served by afterschool programs, access and exposure to STEM can be scarce to nonexistent. This is why after-school programs are so vital for children residing in our most severely economically distressed communities; indeed, by supporting academic success, these programs create a truly viable pathway out of generational poverty.

As California quickly transitions to a new economy that is increasingly dominated by knowledge-based industries, it is incumbent on us to keep our kids fully engaged in STEM during the after school hours. We encourage the  Legislature and the gvernor to invest in our children’s future by prioritizing afterschool programs in the 2018-2019 budget

Miguel Santiago represents California’s 53rd District in the Assembly. David Flak is president and COO of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation.

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