Kamala Harris Wants to Turn Schools into Day-Care Centers

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westerville, Ohio, October 15, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
The policy also puts the government’s thumb on the scale when it comes to parents’ decision of whether to both work or have one parent stay home.

It was the tweet heard round the world: A Mother Jones writer promoted her friendly story about Kamala Harris’s plan to “stretch the school day,” promptly got dragged for it, and soon removed the tweet with this excuse:

She had a point, in fairness. The bill wouldn’t have schools teach kids the core curriculum for a full ten hours. Instead, it would create grants for 500 elementary schools around the country to babysit kids during those hours by providing extra activities when school is not in session.

As the bill puts it, the schools would “collaborate with community partners to develop high-quality, culturally relevant, linguistically accessible, developmentally appropriate academic, athletic, extracurricular, enrichment, or community-based learning opportunities, for students from at least 8 am to 6 pm (or different hours if determined appropriate due to the needs of the community) Monday through Friday during the school year.” There would be supplemental grants available to cover the summer months too.

There is, of course, one legitimate point underlying this plan: Schools operate on hours that plainly are not designed to serve parents or kids. Most start around 8 and end around 3, which is bad for 9-to-5 working parents and late-rising teens alike. If the government is going to take custody of the nation’s children for 35 hours a week or so, it should pick hours that minimize the inconvenience to families.

Most districts should push their start times back to 9, in other words. Though that’s really a job for the districts themselves, not the federal government.

But Harris’s bill (cosponsored with fellow Democratic senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Richard Blumenthal, Sherrod Brown, Jeff Merkley, and Michael Bennet) goes much, much further. It envisions the role of schools as not just providing the education that students need and leaving the rest in parents’ hands, but as providing a free or at least heavily subsidized service to parents who work.

Thus the funding for 500 schools to change their approach, presumably with the goal of showing how great this is so schools nationwide can adopt it. The grants would top out at $5 million, and schools would have to cover the time without forcing existing staff to work longer hours without getting paid more. Total annual funding across all these schools would be $1.3 billion for the school year plus another $1.3 billion in the summer.

The first question here is whether we want federal taxpayers helping to engineer a deep change in the expected role of schools. Education is a local priority, and the non-educational functions of schools should especially be left to local control. If states and cities want to ensure that schools make child care available all year, they’re free to fund that with their own money rather than hitting up federal taxpayers.

Indeed, many schools already do provide after-school activities. And the bill seems to envision an ongoing local role, because it requires 10 percent matching funds, not counting any charges to parents, for the schools that participate.

The policy also puts the government’s thumb on the scale when it comes to parents’ decision of whether to both work or have one parent stay home. One natural consequence of working parents is that kids need care from someone else, and the cost of that care should be factored into this decision. But Harris would have the public shoulder the cost instead. This also means that when parents do decide to have an adult stay home, they’ll still be stuck paying the extra taxes to fund everyone else’s child care.

(For the record, I genuinely have no antipathy toward parents who make either decision: My mom stayed home; my wife works full-time; I used to work full-time too but recently went part-time so I could keep the kids home. Different things work in different situations, but we shouldn’t socialize the costs of one decision at the expense of another.)

There’s also the matter of the current arrangements this plan would disrupt. My colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote of his own childhood experiences yesterday, showing how a larger role for the government could weaken neighborhoods and stop kids from learning independence:

I had a single working mother who rarely if ever was able to pick me up, or be available for extra events imposed by the school. I remember “the gap” quite well. It would have been strange for us even to think of using pay-for child care. The institutions of our world filled the gap: neighbors, friends, and family. I remember the phrase “it takes a village” made some sense to me at the time. . . .

My own childhood experience taught me a great deal of independence and responsibility. It gave me confidence to call on neighbors and friends for help. This is good practice for offering it back in the future. Also, schools are already an unusual hothouse environment. Socializing with the exact same children who are the exact same age, day after day, makes every social faux pas feel like life and death to children going through it. There’s an intensity of regimentation and social extremism already in our school system. A proposal like this would only intensify that existing problem.

Also damaged would be all the businesses that provide after-school care, like the Tae Kwon Do place down the street from me.

Harris suffered a somewhat unfair backlash to her plan, because she doesn’t really want to extend the “school day” as most people would understand that term. But what she actually wants to do isn’t much better.

If we want to make life easier for parents, we can just give them money, rather than expanding the reach of schools into families’ responsibilities and discouraging stay-at-home parenting.

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