Education Week

Schools: The New Social-Welfare Centers

Schools do everything from babysitting to providing summertime meals, and that’s not good for families.

There are many reasons that our country’s public-school system fails so many American kids. Unions protect incompetent teachers (and even defend convicted child molesters), and our location-based schooling system prevents the kind of competition that has spurred tremendous innovation in other sectors of the economy.

Yet here’s another less-discussed reason many schools are in bad shape: Today, schools are not so much educational institutions as they are child-welfare centers, offering an array of services that lie outside the core educational mission.

Babysitting Services

Among the more popular programs offered at schools are the before- and after-school babysitting programs. While some are privately managed and operated, many are run directly out of the school. And even when the federal government awards grants to a private company, the programs are usually located on school property, using school facilities and resources.

Before- and after-school programs begin as early as 6 a.m. and run until 6 or 6:30 p.m. That means some children will spend more than twelve hours at school — that’s a long day even for adults. While these programs are often very popular and well run, they are also a burden on schools.

Moreover, these programs continue the already pronounced trend of shifting child-care responsibilities from family, friends, and, most of all, parents to schools and government-sponsored programs. That creates new challenges for schools, which can no longer expect parents or a loved one to engage with kids after school, helping with homework and hearing about what’s happening in their classrooms and among their peers.

Schools and these after-school care programs command the lion’s share of kids’ time during the work week and therefore end up providing the bulk of their educational and emotional support. That’s a big job even for the most dedicated education professionals, whose time is inevitably divided among dozens of kids. Kids who spend less time and who get less support from parents need more from schools, and even good schools can struggle to deliver.

School Meal Programs

Unsurprisingly, when kids began spending so many of their waking hours at schools, schools began taking over the responsibility of providing meals to students. And officials also see school feeding initiatives as a way to expand their programs and power.

For example, when officials in Washington, D.C., announced that they would expand the school dinner program from 99 to 123 of the city’s public schools, they explained to the Washington Post that the expansion had three goals: “hedging against childhood hunger, reducing alarming rates of obesity, and drawing more students to after-school programs.” So one direct purpose of these efforts is to encourage more parents to make use of after-school care. At some point the public might wonder when enough is enough: To what extent should schools be encouraging parents to outsource oversight of their kids to government bureaucracies?

This official also noted to the Post that principals and teachers reported that “not only were many kids hungry for the last few hours of a long day, some of them weren’t eating much at home.” The Post reporter focused his story on the expanded school-lunch program but could have instead considered a more fundamental question of why parents are sending their kids to school for ten-plus hours without packing them a simple meal or at least a snack to hold them over until dinner.

Similarly, a 2012 USA Today story about summer meals programs explained that these programs offer “a safe location for children to eat lunch, and [a place to] get free food to take home to their families.” Yet the reporter seemed to miss the much bigger story: Why aren’t parents feeding their children during the summer months? Why do children have to go to their schools or to mobile feeding sites to get food for themselves and their families? Talk about burying the lede!

Sadly, feeding kids is less and less seen as the parents’ responsibility, as many school officials actively discourage parents from performing this simple task. The much-lauded Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 — the school-lunch reform bill pushed by the first lady — did just that when it created a mechanism for the automatic enrollment of poor kids in school meal programs. Parents no longer even had to take the step of signing their kids up for free or reduced-price meals. Instead, students who were already receiving welfare benefits were automatically added to the meal rolls. The bill authorized the USDA to award bonuses to states that expand their free-lunch rolls — thereby incentivizing states to increase enrollment in the programs.

In February 2014, the first lady announced yet another expansion of school feeding programs: All children who attend schools in which 40 percent or more of the students are eligible (not actually participating, but eligible) for free or reduced-price lunch will now be provided, at no cost to them, school-prepared meals. In other words, demonstrating financial need is no longer required to get a government handout. Instead, all parents are encouraged to let the state take over this core parental duty.

The first lady said that the expansion was a way to “reduce the stigma and paperwork for schools,” but it also came at a big cost: Study after study shows that parental involvement is key to helping kids eating right and maintain a healthy weight, yet government increasingly seeks to push parents out of the role of feeding their own kids.

And There’s More . . . 

Today, schools do an awful lot more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. From gardening programs to school-based clubs to condom handouts and sex education to those often-politicized environmental and recycling efforts, schools have become the hub for everything a child must learn and do. Some would argue that this is a good thing, because schools have become a gathering place for the community. But putting so many responsibilities in the hands of schools erodes it.

Consider school gardens, which have long been promoted as a solution to the problem of childhood obesity problem. The idea behind the enthusiasm for these gardens was that children would more eagerly consume healthy food if they knew where it came from. But as Caitlin Flannigan observed in The Atlantic, in a powerful essay entitled “Cultivating Failure”: “The suicidal dietary choices of so many poor people are the result of a problem, not the problem itself. The solution lies in an education that will propel students into a higher economic class, where they will live better and therefore eat better.”

In other words, rather than invest so much time on these outdoor fantasies, shouldn’t schools focus on improving children’s true educational outcomes? After all, it isn’t as though schools are doing such a bang-up job on their core responsibility that they’ve earned the right to take on more and more responsibility. In fact, our national test scores confirm that schools fail to teach a frightening portion of the next generation even the most basic skills. According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” only a third of eighth-grade schoolchildren attending public schools can read and do math at grade level. High-school students fared even worse — scoring an average of 153 out of 500, and only 288 in reading. In spite of these grim numbers, public schools spend, on average, more than $12,000 per child.

And It’s About to Start Even Earlier

The president’s fiscal-year 2015 budget includes a $75 billion Preschool and Early Head Start Child Care Initiative to create universal government-run child care for all three- and four-year-olds. Stressed parents might applaud the idea of getting more help with their preschoolers, but, once again, there are major costs to government taking over the duties of raising children.

When homeschooling became popular in the mid ’90s, critics often suggested that homeschooled kids would miss out on the socialization aspect of school. In response, many parents created private sports leagues, clubs, and other activities for homeschooled kids. Today, studies show that homeschoolers are thriving compared with their peers.

Parent involvement matters. When schools take the place of parents in many areas, as they are doing increasingly, it pulls focus from their primary job of educating kids. Even more alarmingly, it marginalizes parents.

— Julie Gunlock writes for the Independent Women’s Forum.

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