The XX Factor

Most Parents Work 9 to 5. Why Do Most Schools Still End Around 3?

The misalignment between school schedules and work schedules makes life difficult for working parents.

Thinkstock/ Nadezhda1906

Like many parents, I’ve often fantasized about 9-to-5 school schedule that would offer children a free and nurturing place to be while their parents worked. Now a new report from the Center for American Progress suggests that this isn’t a pipe dream, but a practical and logical solution that would provide a major boost to the economy.

In “Workin’ 9 to 5: How School Schedules Make Life Harder for Working Parents,” authors Catherine Brown, Ulrich Boser, and Perpetual Baffour make the case for why a shift to longer school days is necessary and how it can be done. Today’s school schedule is the product of a very different time, when mothers stayed home and children were expected to help out with the family business or farm after school. Today, 75 percent of women with school-age children work, and for most of them it is a financial necessity. This means that the vast majority of families have to find accommodations for their children for after school, and sometimes before school, that can often be costly and inconvenient. Holidays and school breaks, during which students often have the day off but their parents don’t, pose a whole other set of logistical challenges. 

In order to gain a sense of the scope of this problem, the researchers analyzed the calendars, schedules, and policies of the largest school districts in the country, which are responsible for almost six million students. Among their findings: Schools are closed for, on average, 29 days a year (not including summer recess), while the average private-sector worker with paid leave has only 16 days off in paid holidays and vacation. Then there’s the 39 percent of all workers, and 80 percent of low-wage workers, who lack access to paid vacation time and the 43 percent of all workers who lack access to paid sick leave. The cost of covering this gap averages $6,600 a year, which amounts to 9 percent of the median income for family households with school-age children.

Another problem: The median school day ends at 2:50 p.m., and nearly every district in the country is closed by 3:30 p.m., while seventy percent of parents report working between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Some parents cope with this by hiring babysitters or seeking other arrangements for their children during these hours. Others deal with it by not working at all. The researchers suspect that the misaligned schedule is partially responsible for the fact that 1 million fewer mothers of elementary-school-age children work full-time than mothers of middle- and high school-age students. (The middle school years are when most people begin to feel comfortable allowing their children to be home alone.) Also, women are far more likely to stop working than men during these years: 53 percent of mothers whose youngest child is in elementary school work full time, compared to 84 percent of fathers. This lost productivity costs the economy about $35 billion every year, assuming those mothers would have made $35,000 a year.

Currently, only 45 percent of elementary schools, and 31 percent of low-income schools, offer before- and after-school programs. Of those that do offer such programs, few of them make them free, discounted, or progressively priced to help make them affordable to low-income families. The report includes a number of suggestions on how to keep the costs of these programs down, including the recommendation that more low-income schools and districts use already available funds from the Every Student Succeeds Act to lengthen the school day.

This week, the PEW Research Center released a survey revealing that most Americans still believe that children are better off with a parent at home. They found that 59 percent of U.S. adults “believe that children with two parents are better off when a parent stays home,” while 39 percent “say children are just as well off when their parents work outside the home.” The rub? The majority of children live in a household where both parents work: 46 percent are raised in households where both parents work full-time, and 17 percent have dads who work full-time and moms who work part-time. If schools take the advice of the recent Center for American Progress report and work towards structuring their schedules to better accommodate working parents, it could do a lot to help abolish this stubborn narrative that working moms are bad for their kids. Our public institutions play a large role in shaping our opinions about how we should conduct our lives, and right now they are explicitly endorsing a lifestyle that few of us can, or want to, lead.