School’s Out for the Summer: Disadvantages of the Year-Round School Calendar on Maternal Employment

This piece, first published on December 9, 2013, is being republished as part of the Chicago Policy Review‘s 20th Anniversary Series. Please visit us here to learn more about the series from our Executive Editors.

Urban leaders are constantly forced to balance improving public goods for residents with making the most sustainable fiscal decisions for the area’s future. A prosperous local economy depends on an educated citizenry, but tighter budgets currently make many innovative educational initiatives unviable. Research has shown that low-income students are often those most severely affected by summer learning loss, yet elongating or redistributing the academic calendar poses complex economic consequences for both school districts and parents.

A recent study in the Journal of Urban Economics highlights some of these challenges by evaluating how the structure of the academic calendar for young children impacts maternal workforce participation. Jennifer Graves’ 2013 paper, “School calendars, child care availability and maternal employment,” finds that moving to a yearlong academic calendar, in which long summer vacations are traded for shorter breaks spread across the calendar year, has been shown to reduce the number of working mothers in an area’s economy. These findings can help guide policymakers when determining what is best for their individual school districts, the local economy, and financing additional childcare support options.

To arrive at her conclusions, Graves examines data from the California Department of Education and the 2000 US Census to determine maternal employment differences as a result of academic calendar formats. California provides a robust sample, as schools on the yearlong academic calendar comprise approximately 20 percent of the state’s public school enrollment and represent about 50 percent of yearlong schools nationwide. Within her sample, Graves looks at three groups: women with no children, mothers with pre-school (younger than six years old) and school-aged (ages six through 17 years old) children, and mothers with only school-aged children. The author then narrows her focus to mothers with elementary-aged children, as these parents are more likely to need to obtain childcare than mothers with only middle and high school-aged children.

The author finds mothers who have children in districts that offer schools on the year-round academic calendar are less likely to take part in the labor market than mothers with no school-aged children. The study shows that transitioning from no year-round elementary schools in a district to California’s current average of 12 percent year-round schools per district results in a decrease of 0.42-0.75 percent workforce participation for all women aged 16 and older with children attending elementary schools in the district. Of the three groups studied, mothers with both pre-school- and school-aged children are most negatively impacted. The author asserts this is because the necessity to find childcare for children with different scheduling needs can be additionally challenging.

Graves’ results reinforce previous studies that have shown that school is a primary form of childcare for parents of school-aged children. In addition to regular school hours of operation, many districts have before and after school programs that help decrease the timeframe that many working parents may have to fill with supplemental childcare. Under the yearlong academic calendar, the difficulties in obtaining childcare are further exacerbated, as there are fewer care options during the intermittent school breaks. This extends not only to a lack of school-based programs, but often to community-based options as well. As reported in a 2002 Urban Institute paper by Jeffrey Capizzano et al., approximately 30 percent of school-aged children in 1999 frequented organized summer programs as a form of child care while their parents were at work. The paper also notes that the possibility of utilizing high school or college students for private care can be more difficult as the schedules of the older students may no longer mirror those of the elementary students in year-round schools.

Crafting policies that strike an optimal balance between local educational, employment, and budgetary needs is complex. Since yearlong academic calendars in

California, on average, have been adopted relatively recently, the results may differ in the long run. Other factors to consider would include the likelihood of students experiencing a “summer slide” wherein they lose skills learned throughout the academic year during long summer vacations. This is particularly worrisome as the outcomes appear to be most acute for children from low-income families. On the other hand, a yearlong calendar may lead many mothers to decide to not work, which would narrow the income tax base and create negative economic impacts in the school district. Additionally, property values in districts utilizing yearlong academic calendars may be affected by the weight parents place on the need for schools as a primary childcare option. With Graves’ research in hand, policymakers now have a more nuanced view of maternal workforce participation to take under advisement when considering new policies affecting parents and their childcare needs.

Article source: Graves, Jennifer. “School Calendars, Child Care Availability and Maternal Employment.” Journal of Urban Economics, 2013.

Featured photo: cc/(Kevin Dooley)'
Katie Anthony
Katie Anthony is a staff writer for Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in urban policy and public finance.

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