Families should not spend more than 7% of their annual income on after-school care, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. By that standard, there is not one state where child care is affordable, per data from resource group Child Care Aware of America.
Earlier this month, Senator Kamala Harris of California proposed a bill as a partial remedy. Called the Family Friendly Schools Act, the plan would supply grants to elementary schools to extend their hours until 6 p.m. and offer summer programming. The alignment of school and works hours would eliminate the need for after-school care, which costs families with school-age kids thousands each year.
The idea isn’t a new one. Similar initiatives have already recently been implemented in a handful of places including New Mexico and New York City. During World War II, the federal government allocated funds to keep schools open later so women could work a full day while men were fighting.
Even though extending the school day could save parents money, some experts fear that widespread implementation would be too complicated. Others, however, say if we reconsidered what role schools should play in our lives, we would see extended school hours as an obligation rather than a luxury.
Why the school day ends hours earlier than work
The number of days in the American school year in the 19th century varied depending on if you lived in a rural or urban community, according to an Education Sector report, but by the 1960s, American schools had settled into the schedule we see most often today: about two months of summer break, and the remaining 10 months broken up by smaller vacations.
This schedule was fixed at a point in time when 37% of women between ages 25 and 54 worked, meaning a majority could pick their children up from school at any time and spend summers at home with them. Today, 73% of women between the ages of 25 and 54 are employed, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. After-school care is now a necessity, but government funding hasn’t caught up to the needs of working parents.
“Demand for public funding [for after-shool programs] is far from being met,” says Jen Rinehart, senior vice president of research and policy at Afterschool Alliance. “In most states there are three or four times more communities who would be offering those after-school program if funding were available.”
How extending school hours could work
Harris has proposed a pilot program that would give 500 schools grants of up to $5 million each spread over five years. That annual budget of up to $1 million would be used to provide enrichment opportunities for the last few hours of the day and keep the school open during occasions such as parent-teacher conferences.
Schools would also have to find a private funding source, like a nonprofit, to match 10% of the grant in the form of money, staff time, meeting spaces, or equipment. The requirement is meant to ensure that, if the federal grant money runs out, schools will have additional resources to sustain the program.
The bill stresses that schools should reach out to local philanthropic organizations and community centers to help create after-school programming that isn’t simply more class time. Teachers would not be required to stay extra hours, though they could sign up for additional paid shifts.
Although the bill says it is meant to help all families, it is especially focused on low-income school districts, noting that parents in low-income brackets “often shoulder the greatest burden, especially those with unpredictable or inflexible work schedules.”
The positive effects of extending school hours
Parents who pay for after-school care spend an average of $114 per week on it, according to 2014 data from the Afterschool Alliance. More recent data from a 2018 Care.com survey found that the average family pays $244 per week for an after-school sitter.
In addition to the money families could save, the U.S. economy could gain $55 billion annually in productivity, according to the Center for American Progress. That’s because parents who can’t afford after-school programs often chose to leave the workforce. This issue disproportionately affects women, says Sarah Cohodes, a professor of economics and education Columbia University.
“Women have the most precarious ties to the labor market in the family,” she says. “They are the ones who change their hours or their decision to work based on whether there is care, or affordable care, for their kids.”
There are about 1 million fewer mothers of elementary school-age kids working than mothers of middle and high school-age kids, according to data from the Center for American Progress, which studied 6 million students. These one million mothers are theoretically forfeiting a median wage of $35,000, which means the economy as a whole loses $35 billion.
And mothers who work full time often forfeit their wages during school closings, resulting in another $20 billion loss for the economy.
Extended school hours could also benefit employers, says Tim Daly, founder of academic advising firm EdNavigator. “One group who will be glad to hear about [Harris’s plan] is the employers,” he says. “They are the ones who ultimately have to make solutions work when school isn’t in session and parents take days off.”
And extended school hours could also provide economic opportunity to low-income communities as, right now, less than one-third of low-income elementary schools have after-school programs. “We have a tremendous opportunity gap,” Rinehart says. “Children from wealthier families are getting a much broader range of opportunities.”
Why extending school hours may not be doable
Extending school hours could benefit both parents and employers, but it’s far from a slam dunk. Schools would find it hard, logistically, to plan extended hours, Rinehart says.
For example, this year, New Mexico’s state legislature allocated $62 billion to schools who promise to lengthen their school year by 10 days and offer after-school programs for the 2019-2020 year. In Albuquerque alone, more than 100 schools were approved for the additional funding to run these programs, but only eight will be offering them.
“Districts are just finding that it’s not doable in terms of school scheduling, teacher contracts, all the things that need to happen to implement that longer day,” Rinehart says. “So they are sending money back because they can’t manage it on that timeline.”
The five-year cap on Harris’s plan is not encouraging for school districts, either. “What happens after five years?” she asks. “If I’m the superintendent of a local district and I go through all the hurdles, then find that the funds are going to dry up in five years, that’s hard for me to really think about doing.”
Another concern is the quality of after-school programs. Sharon Chen teaches elementary school art in a North Texas public school district and says she worries that after-school care instructors don’t all seem well-prepared. Supervisors need to be “trained for a lot of kids with social and emotional issues,” she says.
Rethinking the role of public schools
There are places, however, where something like Harris’s proposal have been shown to be successful. “I don’t think it’s an impossible task,” Cohodes says. “And I think we know that it’s not.”
The Cincinnati Public School district has community learning centers that offer “wraparound” services, which include after-school care. This can take the form of homework help or extracurricular activities like karate and theater, both on-site or at one of the Community Learning Center Institute locations. New York City and Massachusetts also receive federal and state funds for extended programs.
To get all cities to prioritize funding for extended learning time it would “require a change in the way schools think of their responsibility,” Daly says.
Cohodes adds that the success of these programs should not be measured in academic benefits but rather in how effective they are at helping families find solutions.
“It’s just a different norm and different expectation about how people function and who is the provider of security,” she says. “Is it the family, each individually, or is it a community and a government coming together to help provide those solutions?”
For Americans, the answer is usually the former, which is why allocating funds to extend school hours can seem counterintuitive. “It changes who the provider [of security] is, and Americans are uncomfortable with government providing big social services,” Cohodes says, “so that is something people have to come around to.”