The presence of yellow school buses at this time of year reminds us all that kids are back in school. But where do the kids go when they get off the bus? Are they being dropped off at an empty house after school each day?

The pressure of a lagging economy and the reality of one or both parents working full time in most Connecticut households means that the demand for affordable after school programs is greater than ever. Whether in Hartford or Hartland, Meriden or Mystic, parents from across the state in urban, suburban and rural communities struggle to find quality after school care for their children. Over 160,000 Connecticut children are left to their own devices after school, and many more are the caregivers to even younger siblings.

It’s no secret that Connecticut has the largest achievement gap between low-income and middle/upper-income students in the nation. Common sense tells us that one of the best ways to address this problem is to increase the amount of time spent learning. Quality after school programming does just that in a way that is both fun and engaging, while also being very effective at increasing achievement test scores and improving grades.

By working closely with school-day teachers, after school staff can be an essential partner in extending learning time and improving social and emotional skills, as is documented in many studies from around the country.

In addition, after school programs enable parents to get through their work day without worrying about their children’s safety after 3 p.m. This inevitably leads to better productivity and stronger businesses. Yet the unmet need for after school programs in Connecticut is profound, despite the fact that the majority of the state’s parents would enroll their child in a convenient, affordable program if one were available.

Although there are some great after school programs that are free or low-cost, the average cost for after school care in our state is $90 per week per child – more than many working families in Connecticut can afford. Several state grants provide needed funding to offset this cost, but the current state budget crisis puts these resources in jeopardy.

When budgets are tight, we need to spend smarter by investing in preventive programs with proven results. The fact is the return on investment to taxpayers for every dollar spent on high-quality after school programs ranges from $2.19 to $3.22.

We owe it to our working families and their children to address their needs by investing in quality afterschool programs that are proven to increase student learning, keep kids safe, and help parents work.

Michelle Doucette is the executive director of the CT After School Network.