School's out - what's a working parent to do?

June 22, 2006|By JANE WALDFOGEL

This month all across America, working parents will face the familiar challenges of summer - most important, keeping their children safe and occupied during the long school break.

Schools, after all, are the major provider of care for children of working parents. And when schools close for the summer, parents must scramble.

Two-thirds of American children live with two working parents or a single working parent. Yet most schools are open only 30 hours a week, 180 days a year, and they usually don't serve children under age 5. In fact, between the birth of a child and the child's 18th birthday, schools cover only one-third of the hours that a parent working full-time is at work or commuting.

But let's not be too hard on the schools. They are not the only institutions that continue to be organized in ways that are incompatible with full-time work. Employers make little provision for workers who need flexibility to take care of family responsibilities, operating instead on the tacit assumption that every employee has the equivalent of a stay-at-home spouse to manage family responsibilities. Government also provides little support for working parents.

What should society do to ensure that children are well cared for while their parents work? Most of us can agree on three general principles derived from core American values.

The first is the importance of respecting choice. Whatever policies we introduce should support families making their own choices about care for their children.

Second, we need to promote quality. Research shows quality care has a positive impact on children's growth and development that lasts all the way into adulthood. But many children do not have access to quality care.

Third, we must support employment. The work ethic is a widely shared American value, and for most parents, work is a financial necessity. Women should not be forced to take a back seat in the labor market just because there is a child in the household.

We can identify seven specific policies that would help better meet the needs of children with working parents:

Expand family and medical leave rights and introduce a right for parents to request part-time and flexible work hours.

Ensure continuity of essential family benefits, especially health insurance.

Give parents the chance to spend more time at home during a child's first year of life by providing a year of paid parental leave through the social insurance system.

Improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers by tightening standards and expanding promising programs such as Early Head Start.

Enhance the quality of care and education for preschool-age children by expanding successful programs such as Head Start and pre-kindergarten.

Provide high-quality after-school programs for school-age children and teenagers.

Extend the school day and year to align more closely with parents' work schedules.

Such a package would fundamentally change the landscape of support for children in working families. It would give parents more flexibility, provide better quality care and protect children from fluctuations in their parents' employment.

This package would be costly. But in the long run, the costs would be offset by benefits: better childhood health and development, school readiness and school attainment. Extending parental leave has been shown to significantly improve infant and maternal health. Moreover, for every $1 invested in high-quality preschool programs, society saves between $1 and $17 in reduced school dropout rates, crime and unemployment

Many elements of this program would not require new dollars but rather the wiser investment of dollars that we are already spending. In 2000, federal and state governments spent more than $20 billion on preschool and out-of-school child care. And parents spent much more, paying for about 60 percent of the cost of care for children under 5 and a larger share for school-age children. Yet despite the huge sums being spent, the quality of care is much lower than it could be.

Surely every community could do something to better meet the needs of children in its area - by adding a pre-kindergarten class, expanding after-school programs or offering a school vacation camp.

Wouldn't that be a great way to spend the summer vacation?

Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work and public affairs at the Columbia University School of Social Work, is the author of "What Children Need." Her e-mail is jw205@columbia.edu.

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