Thursday, March 7, 2019

Why Do Teachers Have Such Lousy Parental Leave?

At Working Mother, Amy Sherman asks a really good question-- It's a Mom-Dominated Profession. So Why Are Teachers Getting the Shaft on Maternity Leave?

Of course, we're talking about US teachers, because we rank at the very bottom of the barrel for developed (or in some cases, even semi-developed) countries when it comes to maternity leave. For all our noise about babies and motherhood and how parenting a small child is one of the most important jobs in the world, as a society, we don't do jack to support people who are actually parenting babies. We could make, as a country, the same deal that we make, for instance, with soldiers-- when duty calls, the employers just have to suck it up and the country makes sure to support them.

Just got home from Stock Photo Hospital
Instead, we leave it to individual businesses to decide how much support they will give parents of newborns (above and beyond the meager FMLA requirement). Some businesses do pretty well. For all their faults, Microsoft has a pretty good set of policies for parental leave. Many of the tech companies do, even though they are notoriously bad at hiring women.

So what does it say that one of the most female professions has uniformly lousy parental leave policies?

My wife and I were fortunate. The twins were born on the day after the last student day of my wife's year (a few days after my last day). As was the case with the woman in Sherman's story, my wife could have had paid leave-- by using up her sick days. This is a ridiculous bind to put new parents in-- what are the odds that a parent of small children will need a few sick days? A few years ago, my district finally negotiated a sick day bank, whereby teachers could "donate" sick days to other teachers-- the first big users were young women with newborns with health issues. Somewhere in administration the complaint was voiced that the intent of the day bank was not to lengthen maternity leave-- well, what did they imagine would happen? You have a staff with lots of young women who A) are starting families and B) have not worked long enough to accumulate a ton of sick days.

But why is this even a thing? Teaching is mom-dominated and child-centered.

Part of it-- a huge part of it-- is money. You're paying somebody who is not doing work, and schools don't have the private-sector choice of just sort of absorbing the new mother's workload until she returns. Somebody will have to be paid to fill in.

And in this day of low substitute supply, that sub may not be optimal. A teacher friend of mine just had a baby; her maternity leave is being covered by someone with Home Ec certification.

Add to that a new wrinkle-- testing. Two members of my old department are taking maternity leave this year, and the timing for the school is terrible in terms of testing. I can guarantee that test scores will dip next year, and it will be strictly because one teacher is home with her new baby instead of in her classroom doing her usual test prep for the weeks before the test.

Local unions share the blame as well. Unions could make parental leave a big issue, but in most cases they lack the will. First, while teaching may be mom-dominated, it's not exclusively mom-occupied, and there are always problems negotiating terms that only benefit some union members (e.g. in almost every local you can find someone single bitching about how they get essentially paid less because they don't have a family on which to use family health care benefits). On top of that, many women aren't willing to demand the union push hard because they feel guilty about the maternity leave-- they know it's going to disrupt their students, inconvenience their colleagues, and probably make their own lives miserable when they return and have to clean up the mess.

In the end, parental leave for teachers suffers from the same old factors-- it's expensive, it's disruptive, and it mostly benefits women. Teachers get lousy parental leave in part because almost everybody in the US gets lousy leave.

School boards ought to be leading the charge. School boards and teacher unions ought to be saying that we know those first months are critical, so we expect our teachers to take a full paid parental leave, because we know better than anyone how early support for a child pays off further down the line, so we're going to set an example-- not only that, but we're going to be vocal in pushing businesses in our community to offer full paid parental leave as well.

I mean, in the education space we've started talking endlessly about pre-K, about early intervention, about starting to give children the support they need from Day One. And yet somehow in all this brave new reformy wave, I have yet to see calls for a really important early intervention-- giving the mother the ability to stay home with her new child without risking the family's financial well-being. So where are the policy wonk voices? Where are the think tank voices?

Could it be that we still worry more about money than children? Could it be that we still think that policies that primarily benefit women just aren't that urgent?

Every time I think about maternity leave in this country, I get angry all over again. We scratch our heads and say, "Gee, how could we give children a better start in life," as we shoo poor new mothers back to work after a couple of weeks because, hey, her employer has needs. No single policy more clearly demonstrates that we value the sovereignty of the business owner, the financial impact on commerce, more than we value children and the women who give birth to them.

We should be demanding better, and education should be leading the way.

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