Want to Give the Economy a Boost? Send Kids to School From 9 to 5

Mismatched school and work schedules stress parents out and cost the U.S. billions in lost productivity.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Oct 18, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Last week on Columbus Day, the 1.1 million students enrolled in the New York City public schools had the day off. Two days later, school was out again in Gotham for Yom Kippur. The 655,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest district in the nation, also stayed home because it was an “unassigned day.” In November, many students nationwide will have Veteran’s Day off. Some districts, including LAUSD, are shuttered for the entire week of Thanksgiving. Less than a month later, school will be out again for winter break.

My sons are 13 and 15, so they can stay home unsupervised. But when they were younger, I, like many working parents across the nation, frequently scrambled to find childcare. A day when school gets out early can sometimes be more challenging—my sons can walk or take the bus home now, but when they were younger, I had to find a friend willing to pick them up from school, otherwise I had to miss work to get them.

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Fixing this misalignment between working parents’ schedules and school districts’ operating hours and days off is in the national interest, according to the authors of Workin’ 9 to 5, a report released last week by the Center for American Progress. The Washington, D.C.–based policy think tank analyzed federal data and the calendars, schedules, and policies of some of the largest school districts in the United States, including LAUSD and New York City public schools. It found that the hours of the typical school day, along with the number of days districts are closed, creates a hardship for working parents and costs the U.S. economy $55 billion annually in lost productivity.

“We’ve received powerful responses from both parents and education advocates who agree with our report’s fundamental message: Working families deserve better school schedules,” the report’s authors, Catherine Brown, Ulrich Boser, and Perpetual Baffour, wrote in an email to TakePart. “Indeed, our findings come as no surprise to parents who have long had to wrestle with misguided policies around short school days, long summer vacations, and random closings.”

Brown, Boser, and Baffour found that the average private sector worker with paid leave has 16 days off in paid holidays and vacation, but the typical school district is closed for 29 days during the school year. That means if working moms or dads use all their paid leave, there are still 13 days for which they must figure out childcare.

Paying someone to watch their kids for the days they’re out of school costs families “an average of $6,600 per year, or 9 percent of an average family’s income,” the authors wrote in the report. If a mom or dad is among the 39 percent of all workers who don’t have paid vacation time, or among the 43 percent of workers who don’t have sick leave, the financial burden may be higher. The problem also disproportionately affects black and Latino parents, who tend to earn less than their peers and “are far more likely to hold hourly shift jobs that are less flexible,” according to the report.

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While 70 percent of parents in the United States work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the center found that “virtually every district in the country is closed by 3:30 p.m.” District-provided after-school care is spotty at best.

“Only around 45 percent of all public elementary schools actually offer before- and after-school care, according to CAP’s analysis of federal data,” the authors wrote in the report. Schools that serve low-income communities are “less likely to offer after-school programs than other schools. Nationally, only 31 percent of Title I schools offer such programs, for instance, compared with 40 percent of schools not eligible for Title I funding,” they wrote. Of districts that do offer after-school care, “fewer than one-third make after-school care cheaper or completely free for low-income families.”

School staff need professional development without kids present and deserve vacation and holidays as much as the rest of us—so any way of reducing the financial burden on parents will likely shift it to society as a whole. But one easy fix would be to alter school hours to a schedule that more closely aligns with that of working parents.

“We believe improving school schedules will require a shift in our culture and mindset. Many schooling policies still operate under the assumption that one parent—presumably the woman—is available to attend to the child in case of a closing, delay, early dismissal, or other emergency,” the authors wrote to TakePart.

“However, research consistently shows that this is an outdated assumption. Women—now more than ever—are working full-time and heading single-parent households. Even for married-couple families, there’s been a large boost in the number of parents working full-time. Before there can be any meaningful change in school scheduling, school districts must first recognize the shifting demographics and needs of the 21st century working family.” Starting school later in the day would benefit older students, whose circadian rhythms don’t jibe with classes that start at 8 a.m.

According to the report’s authors, cost is one factor holding school districts back from making such a change. “Most schools will need increased funding in order to expand their school schedules, and many district budgets are already stretched thin,” they wrote to TakePart. Along with allocating funding toward lengthening the school day, staggered teacher schedules and community partnerships could help pick up the childcare slack. The cost could be made up on the back end, as studies show that enriched after-school programs help students succeed, likely making them higher earners when they reach working age.

To catalyze a national conversation about the issue, the report suggests that the president “should use his convening power to host a White House conference on supporting working families through improved school schedules, and the convening should bring together diverse stakeholders to solve these problems.” It also suggests that the U.S. Department of Education create and support “a working group of school, district, and major community-based organization leaders who are committed to working on this issue and sharing best practices.”

Given that the report was just released, “it’s simply too early to discuss the particulars of a potential White House convening” or the role of the DOE, the authors wrote to TakePart. Given that President Obama has only three months left in his term, a conference—and a long-term commitment to better supporting working families—is likely to be in the hands of the next commander in chief.