The Allure of a Quick Fix for Childcare

On Wednesday, Senator Kamala Harris released a plan. The goal was to offer a tentative step towards a solution for one of the most vexing problems facing working parents: The hours-long gap between school letting out and the end of the work day.

The plan, which argued that the school day should be lengthened through a combination of federal grants and private investment, debuted via an exclusive article in Mother Jones, authored by reporter Kara Voght. Despite a positive write-up, which mentioned that the plan would start with schools surveying “parents, teachers, and community members to determine what sort of extended school day would work best for their particular school population,” the plan drew immediate criticism from leftists on Twitter when published Wednesday morning. Within the incredulous responses a single unifying question emerged: How is more work—longer hours for teachers in order to keep parents on the job—progress?

Harris’s school extension plan isn’t an attempt to replace moves towards universal, or subsidized, childcare, which America desperately needs—the California Senator already has a plan to increase childcare subsidies, has introduced legislation to tackle the issue in the Senate, and leads the field on paid family leave. Also, the school-day extension plan Harris proposed would be a pilot program that would only initially affect 500 schools, not an executive diktat that she would hand down on Day One of her presidency. Responding to the feedback generated by the article, Voght wrote on Twitter that she felt the majority of critics were white males unaware of the requirements of parenthood, or others who ignored the fact that the head of the American Federation of Teachers union, Randi Weingarten, endorsed the plan.

But while Harris’s school-day extension program may not be the flippant neoliberal fluff that its most vociferous critics first suggested, it’s also far from a serious solution to the chronic overworking of both teachers and parents. The childcare deficit for working families sits at the intersection of frozen wages, longer workdays, and skyrocketing private childcare costs. And Harris’s plan and the reaction to it, if anything, offer an object lesson in why Band-Aid approaches to such a multi-factored problem won’t work.

Harris proposes that a select number of school systems should extend school hours to 6 p.m. To make this at least partially feasible, her plan would allot the schools up to $5 million in federal funding that would be spread out over a five-year period. To shore up the financial difference for staffing the extra hours, and to provide engaging non-homework activities, the schools would be encouraged to seek “a private or non-federal public funding source.” Essentially, it’s a way to dip public-school toes in the waters of mandatory universal after-school programs, with a dash of private involvement to make things cozy for the charter and anti-federal crowd.

Increasing the hours of American teachers, however, is a nonstarter. In the past five years, teachers in red and blue states have been forced to deal with a multitude of issues brought on by their state politicians refusing to return to pre-Recession funding levels—unwieldy class sizes, funding cuts that force teachers to go out-of-pocket for basic classroom necessities, stagnant wages, and little potential for future wage growth or vertical movement.

So despite a number of caveats in the plan’s rollout about not further burdening teachers, the proposal that the workday be extended by two or three hours elicited immediate groans. While the Mother Jones article reported that Harris’s plan “takes pains” to ensure that teacher hours won’t be stressed, there was little by way of concrete plans that would actually avoid this inevitability. Even with a five-year, $5 million grant, cash-strapped school systems would be hard pressed to find a way around asking their teachers to stick around even longer for similar wages.

Nor did the language in the report suggest the plan was engaging with such realities. “Teachers and administrators would not increase the amount of time they work unless they volunteer additional hours and are compensated fairly for them,” the report declared. The verb “volunteer” is as flexible as a given employer wants it to be, a reality amplified by the requirements of this particular profession, in which teachers are already constantly forced to work on lesson plans and grading outside of official work hours. In all likelihood, the result of such a measure would be that younger, lower-salaried teachers and teacher’s assistants would be forced to pick up these shifts because their hourly wages would cost the school system less. Similarly, the description of any forthcoming compensation as “fair” in practice would probably mean only that they would be paid the same meager hourly total they’re already locked in at.

Voght’s defense that Harris’s plan would not necessarily mean more classroom time for the teachers and the students hints at what is perhaps the most appealing part of the plan: its value as a step towards universal after-school programs. After-school programs already exist en masse for wealthy school systems with wealthy parents filling up wealthy PTAs. The idea of delivering a sense of equity to schools that service lower-income communities is full of potential. But that potential is undercut by its demand that the participating schools find a non-federal partner to match at least ten percent of the federal grant, which the Mother Jones piece comes out and admits is for the when the “grant money has run out.” Any proposal that relies on private funding is almost guaranteed to widen the gap between affluent and more cash-strapped communities.

Even if the solution was a fully covered federal guarantee, that promise would still a limited response to a series of much more complex issues that could likewise be solved through federal action. For instance, the plan presumes a nine-to-five schedule, and thus does nothing to help shift workers, despite the fact that millions of Americans are forced to work jobs that run during the evening and early morning. And that’s not even to consider the question of whether extending the school day is actually good for kids, whose schedules are already built—with scant regard for their health—around the dictates of the adult working day.

The present reality of being a working person, let alone a working mother, in America is an average work week that veers on becoming mentally and physically unsustainable by lunch every Thursday: While U.S. workers have achieved production rates far higher than any time in the past century, the humane ideal of a 40-hour work week continues to be a mirage for most, rather than a legal mandate. Wages, adjusted for inflation, have stagnated. Yet individuals work, on average, 269 more hours per year than an economy of our size and strength would suggest is needed. Thirteen million workers have been forced to pick up second jobs, with women far out-pacing men in being financially dependent on multiple sources of income to get by. By every measurable statistic, Americans are working too much and being paid too little.

This brings us to the labor-rooted rage that was directed at Harris’s pilot program: People, generally, are tired of half-measures. They are sick of someone offering them a minuscule tax grant. If expanding after-school programs is as high as one’s ceiling goes on potential solutions to what is at it’s heart a labor crisis, then one should not be shocked when laborers shake their fists. Put plainly, Harris’s plan is a duct tape solution on a sinking ship, when what’s required is an entirely new vessel.

It’s also a classic moderate response: an attempt to offer a solution as simple as the financially questionable and politically regressive paleocon focus on shoving mothers back into the home, without restructuring American labor as proposed by politicians further left. With popular candidates like Warren and Sanders sitting atop the polls by promoting major expansions of workers’ rights, “Medicare for All” health plans, and other fundamental rewritings of the economic rules governing the modern American household, Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, have reached for plans those running in similar politico circles might refer to as “sensible” or “common-sense solutions.”

The problem with these common-sense fixes is that they offer the illusion—very seductive given the urgency of the problem—that an over-determined, multi-factor crisis actually has simple, partially privatized, low-cost solutions. These plans cling to the belief that there may still be a minimum effort, or even profitable, plan for helping someone ensure their child is taken care of while they labor away to keep said child insured and housed. While many overburdened parents might indeed welcome the relief of a longer school day, and school employees might indeed spill tears of joy if such a program were able to offer them few extra thousand dollars, politicians should not be allowed to exploit the urgency of their needs: The fact that parents might feel gratitude if their needs are only partly met is not an endorsement of a half-assed policy.

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