Commentary

Canceling Summer Vacation

By Darcy Ann Olsen
This article appeared in the Washington Times on June 20, 2000.

No more teachers, no more books…? The official start of summer this month will be a welcome break for students and teachers. But if Vice President Al Gore has his way, summer vacations may soon be a thing of the past.

As part of his “New Family Agenda,” Gore has announced a federal initiative “to make use of more than 500 additional hours in summer and after-school time,” equivalent to an extra four months of school per year. Gore would use federal spending and tax credits to encourage families to use after-school programs, expand school hours, and recruit new staff.

In one sense, Gore’s initiative is unsurprising. The administration has long promoted programs like those in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where schools stay open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., five days per week, year round. And Gore’s plan mirrors a nationwide trend: as student achievement has declined over the past 30 years, school districts have responded by requiring longer school days, longer school years and mandatory summer school.

But in terms of scale, Gore proposes nothing short of a revolutionary expansion of the role of public schools in family life. Consider its centerpiece: a little known federal program called 21st Century Learning Centers, for which Gore pledges to “dramatically” increase funding.

To become eligible for Learning Center funds, a public school must carry out four or more activities from big government’s wish list. These include “literacy education; senior citizen programs; child care, integrated education, health, social service, recreational, or cultural programs; summer and weekend school programs in conjunction with recreation programs; nutrition and health programs; expanded library service hours; telecommunications and technology education; parenting skills; support and training for child care workers; employment counseling, training, and placement; services for individuals who leave school before graduation; and services for individuals with disabilities.” In short, Gore’s plan would transform public schools into comprehensive one-stop social service outlets. So far, about 1600 public schools have become federal Learning Centers.

Gore claims the New Family Agenda will reduce delinquency and crime, teen sex and pregnancy, and dropout rates. “It’s in those after-school hours that most juvenile crime, teen pregnancy and alcohol and drug use occur,” Gore says. He assures voters that this mass of new programs will not displace parents’ efforts, just supplement them. “Government doesn’t raise children; families do,” Gore said, “But we can make it easier, not harder, to be a strong family.”

Yet it’s hard to imagine how having children spend more time in government programs and less time with their parents makes for stronger families. For instance, new research by the president’s Council of Economic Advisers found that teens who eat dinner with a parent five days a week or more are less likely to smoke, use alcohol or marijuana, or have sex and have higher grade point averages and are more likely to have plans for college. “These results persist after taking account of differences in teens’ gender, poverty status, and family structure,” the report concludes.

Existing after-school programs never produce such results, and it’s no wonder. For it isn’t the food provided at family meals that helps the children, it is the parental effort and involvement. The more time children spend away from their parents—be it through after-school programs, school breakfasts, or eliminating summer vacations—the weaker the bond between them and the more diffuse the influence that parents have on their children’s behavior.

That’s one reason why neither parents nor students seem to desire these extra programs: an estimated 40 percent of seats in after-school programs are empty. A recent YMCA survey found that teenagers’ top concern is “not having enough time together” with their parents, and more than 40 percent of parents agree that the time they spend with their teens is inadequate. But all the after-school programs in the world will not give parents and children more time together. If anything, an expanded role for schools gives them less.

When it comes to helping families, the federal government could do more by doing less. Letting moms and dads keep more of what they earn would be a start. A tax cut would give parents more money for after-school care or let them reduce their hours and spend more time at home. At the state level, legislatures could adopt universal tuition tax credits so families could pay for schools of their choosing, including those with and without after-school programs.

There are some things that parents simply do better than the government. Raising children is one of them. Using tax money to encourage children to spend their time at “Learning Centers” rather than with their parents is useless at best, and harmful at worst. There are only so many hours in a child’s day. Empirical research—as well as plain common sense—says that government policy should give families more time together, not less.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy.