Family values lite

July 12, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I am getting a mild case of jet lag following the president on his Grand Tour of American Values. If this is Thursday, it must be Curfews. If this is Friday, it must be School Uniforms. V-Chips on Monday. Smoking on Tuesday. # Twenty-One Family Issues in Twenty-One Days.

He's starting to sound like the quintessential American in Paris: ''Quick, quick, I'm double-parked, Where's the Mona Lisa?'' Or in this case, where's the pro-family vote?

It's not that I am opposed to this trip. I've been looking forward to it for years. Until now these travelogues always featured the far right. They owned all the tickets marked family and values. Now, at long last this White House Frequent Flier is covering the territory, claiming it as his own, and the right wing has been left sputtering on the tarmac.

But I do get the feeling, frankly, that the president's itinerary is just a little lite. Four years ago, family policies were about national health care and welfare reform. Now they're about curfews and school uniforms.

In his speech last week to the National Education Association Mr. Clinton talked about kids out of school. ''The difference between success and failure in life for our children,'' he said, ''is whether they're learning on the streets or in the school where they belong. The street is not an acceptable alternative to the classroom.''

Why they're out of school

Well, I'll join the teachers who applauded that line. But the president was talking up a plan to deal with truancy. And while that's a problem, if he steps onto the city streets today, the kids he'll see hanging out aren't truants. They're out of school ''where they belong'' and on the street which ''is not an acceptable alternative'' because school is out!

In most communities, school is only in 180 days a year, six hours a day. Two facts that drive working parents absolutely crazy.

For much of American history, the school year was arranged around family needs. Parents needed the kids to be home for the harvest and so they were. Now what the family needs is for kids to be supervised while parents are working out of the home. And yet most of the school doors are shut.

There is much to be said for time spent at camp -- if families can afford it -- and something to be said for time spent at work -- if teens can find it. And if I were the god of corporate policy, I'd subtract hours from parents' work schedules so they could do more of the supervising themselves.

But we know that kids can use more school time for their minds -- in Japan and Germany kids go to school 220 to 243 days -- and we know that kids need more school time for our peace of mind.

The most important factor in education is what happens in school. The most important factoids are what's happening out of school. When do most juvenile crimes take place? In the late afternoon. When do most teen-age conceptions occur? In the late afternoon and during school vacations. And what are we doing? Building jails and scratching our heads over teen pregnancy.

As Yale's Edward Zigler, a founder of Head Start and designer of the year-round, all-day School of the 21st Century now operating on 400 sites, says, ''It's what grandma always told us. If you leave kids to take care of themselves on the streets they'll get in trouble. Now the social scientists say [to grandma], 'You're right.' ''

Any sensible public policy would begin using the $3 trillion investment in schools more than nine months a year, six hours a day. Yet the movement to extend the school day and year inches along, hindered largely by costs, by skepticism about the schools and some resistance by employers who depend on teen labor. While the president talks about truancy.

In fairness to Mr. Clinton, most of the funding for schools is local, not federal. But this is a man who personally installed computers in a classroom last winter. He has a whole lot less to say about updating the school year.

This inveterate traveler is visiting around the edges of the family problems. One week he talks of extending the family and medical leave act -- by 24 hours a year. The next week he talks about keeping kids in school -- by curtailing truancy. Travel is supposed to be broadening. If the man is taking his bully pulpit on the road, let's get to what's important. Otherwise, he's just a tourist.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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