Last week, Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris introduced her Family Friendly Schools Act, which moves to create after-school and summer programming to align the workday with the school day to help working families. Billed by some critics as a 10-hour school day, Harris’ plan would award five-year grants of up to $5 million in 500 elementary schools nationwide with a large share of low-income students.
The Family Friendly Schools Act has been controversial, with some applauding Harris’ for her efforts to help improve the lives of working parents, while others wonder about resources for both students and teachers.
The Inquirer turned to two local teachers, who are also parents, to debate the pros and cons of this proposed plan.
A sensible measure that acknowledges the needs of working parents
Families want, need, and like aftercare, particularly families where two parents work or a single parent runs the household. Senator Kamala Harris’ proposed bill, the Family Friendly Schools Act, would provide funding for high-quality after-school programs by paying staff or others for their time. It is a sensible measure that acknowledges working families’ needs by offering wraparound care at the schools where children already are.
“When schools are closed it is a burden for working parents, and this falls more on women than on men,” says Julie Kashen, director of Women’s Economic Justice at the Century Foundation. Mothers, 70 percent of whom work, are usually the ones figuring out what to do with their children when school ends at 3 p.m. More than 11 million children have nowhere to go after school and are unsupervised, while another 19 million have parents who would love to enroll them in aftercare if it were available, according to the Afterschool Alliance, which finds that 9 in 10 families who use aftercare like it.
Subsidizing aftercare helps working parents by providing money for what many wealthier families already do, which is pay for enrichments such as sports, math tutoring, and music lessons. Of the one-quarter of American families whose children participate in a school-based after-school program, three-quarters are in urban areas where the majority of students receive free or reduced lunch. “We have an after-school program that exists for lowest income families — the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program,” Kashen points out, “but there are many more people who would like to access it” than currently are able to.
Harris’s plan offers federal funds for 500 pilot schools to create high-quality aftercare in predominantly low-income areas. Currently for families that can’t pay, local nonprofits such as Urban League can make up the difference, but the application is an extra step and doesn’t cover all families. Harris’ plan would give the money to schools directly.
As long as women have worked, children have been in the care of others.
Good after-school programs also help children. I was lucky enough to be able to pay for high-quality aftercare at my children’s elementary school in Jersey City when I needed to return to work full-time, as a teacher. At their school, where half of students are low-income, they have been able to take classes in fencing, sewing, table tennis, engineering, board games, woodworking, homework help, and public speaking. When I announce that I have a day off or can get them early, they tell me to take my time: they’d prefer to be playing with their friends at school.
Philadelphia recently launched the Out-of-School Time Initiative to bring free enrichment options to all students. “If you have a dynamic principal or one who believes in partnerships, those schools tend to be highly resourced,” says Farah Jimenez, director of the Philadelphia Fund for Education. The initiative extends that dynamism more equitably through libraries and community centers, as well as schools, and collects data on impact. It now reaches 187,000 of 220,000 Philadelphia children around the year, says Jimenez, who points out that Philadelphia could serve as a model for the data collection on outcomes required by Harris’ bill.
Still, some argue children need more rather than less free time. These objections tend to reflect adult anxiety about stress and overwork, and express nostalgia for an idyllic past. This vision is mythic; working mothers have always needed care.
The preschool I myself attended years ago was established in the 19th century for the children of washerwomen; until preschool and after-school care become more common in the late 20th century, working mothers could choose to lock their children in a room alone, leave young children with a neighbor or older child, hope a healthy grandparent had retired and lived nearby, or let them roam the streets. As long as women have worked, children have been in the care of others. Let’s make that care good and safe, through their schools.
Carly Berwick is a journalist and teacher in New Jersey.
Nice in theory, but really just another way to shortchange low-income families
Quality and affordable after-school care is an issue for families across the nation. Here in Philadelphia, many organizations offer after-school programming — some at no cost to families. This highlights the need for safe, purposeful, and fun after-school options that can be hard to come by, depending on the zip code in which a family lives. I applaud Kamala Harris for bringing this issue into the national conversation by introducing the Family Friendly Schools Act, which proposes spending $1.3 billion to provide a longer school day, thus removing the need for after-school care. I fear, however, that this act would create further divides in our already inequitable educational system.
The proposed legislation seeks to align the school day with the traditional workday. On the surface, this may seem like a fine solution. Parents will no longer be scrambling to find someone to pick up and care for their kids after school. Schools will be offered grants to remain open until 6 p.m., particularly if they are serving large numbers of low-income families. Teachers would not be required to work these extra hours, but those willing to remain would be compensated. Summer programming would be extended and schools would remain open during extended holidays to ease the financial burden of families who must pay for care so that the parent can work.
All this sounds lovely. Schools with willing and able teachers who already have gyms, play spaces, and facilities will likely have an easy time creating quality programming for kids who need it. Imagine what a well-funded suburban district could do with a five-year, $5 million grant?
Having kids stay until 6 p.m. would too closely mirror the work day and promote that prevalent American misconception that more work is somehow better.
Meanwhile, their urban counterparts would struggle to locate the facilities and human resources to provide such offerings. Two-thirds of Philadelphia public elementary schools lack playgrounds. Some have no gymnasium and most rely on philanthropic donations to create and maintain green spaces. Teacher turnover is a well-documented problem, making it difficult to staff regular classrooms, let alone additional time from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
These disparities would further incentivize an exodus from the city into the suburbs. And families without the resources to leave would be left with even fewer resources for their already inadequately funded schools. I believe that this plan would widen the gap between urban and suburban districts — giving additional resources to those who already have an edge and creating further programming challenges for schools already struggling to provide for the students they have.
This proposal would also narrow the gap between adults and children. Families find creative, meaningful, and enriching ways to spend the hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. — grappling with homework together, developing the life skills of meal prep and communal living and engaging in play with each other and with friends. Having kids stay until 6 p.m. would too closely mirror the work day and promote that prevalent American misconception that more work is somehow better. It seems arrogant to assume that schools could do a better job at filling this time than families.
If we are going to make the school day longer, we must start by making it better. The $1.3 billion in funding proposed in the Family Friendly Schools Act would be better spent on rectifying our nation’s alarming divide in education. Investing in infrastructure to provide kids with a safe, comfortable, and green spaces to learn, actively recruiting and training teachers of color so that kids can see themselves reflected in their instructors, and funding playgrounds, libraries, music programs, and athletics might not alleviate the lack of quality and affordable after-school programs, but it would create a more just and equitable educational system. Which would, in turn, narrow the divide between urban and suburban achievement and opportunity.
Nancy Ironside is a teacher at Science Leadership Academy Middle School.