Public schools turn into public orphanages

By Eric BuehrerFounder of Gateways To Better Education

January 1996 – Some people were shocked last year when House Speaker Newt Gingrich resurrected the word orphanage, thrusting it into the public vocabulary. But ironically, many of the people so offended by talk of public orphanages enthusiastically support expanding the role of public schools until they become part-time versions of just such institutions.

Traditionally, a key difference between a school and an orphanage is that a school’s mission is to teach children, while orphanages care for children. But as America’s moral ills mount, many social tinkerers have turned to public schools for salvation. In the name of helping parents, the would-be rescuers have, in essence, asked schools to replace them.

Steven Sample, president of the University of Southern California, recently observed, “We have dismantled the family in America in a way that no other industrial society has, so now we want our schools to be surrogate families, physicians, priests, parents. We want them to be agents of social change. So the schools cannot do their job of teaching English and mathematics.”

Sample described a new type of public orphanage – an institution for the care of abandoned children. But we call it a public school.

With a matter-of-fact tone (and a hint of satisfaction), policy-makers tell us that the days of the Ozzie and Harriet family are over. Rather than strategize a way to restore better days, they tell us how government employees can be the new Ozzies and Harriets providing for our children.

In a 1994 report issued by the Committee for Economic Development, a group of Fortune 500 business leaders put it this way:

“Many look to the school instead of to parents and community as the front-line defense against every social or health problem from teen pregnancy to child abuse, AIDS, violence, and religious disaffection.

“No organization can traverse such a swamp of conflicting missions. And what is the result of these growing social mandates? School after school is accomplishing neither its academic nor its social goals.”

The Incredible Growing Mandate
Teachers traditionally have felt some responsibility to children and families who need help. Whether it is an after-school chat with a student or even a visit to the home, as long as there have been schools there has been a connection between school and home. What has changed is the extent to which political and educational leaders wish to institutionalize and expand the school’s responsibility in helping families raise children.

In Kansas, for example, the Department of Education’s mission was recently changed to read:

“The mission of Kansas education is to prepare each person with the living, learning, and working skills and values necessary for caring, productive, and fulfilling participation in our evolving, global society.”

Such a statement sounds more like the mission of a family than that of a school. Kansas schools have taken on the responsibility of preparing people with “living” skills, with “values necessary for caring, productive, and fulfilling participation” in society. How are teachers in Kansas to measure a necessary value for caring? What will they deem to be a caring or uncaring attitude? What does “fulfilling participation” look like?

It traditionally has been the role of parents and family members to raise children with living skills and values. Parents have passed on to their children what it means to be a caring and fulfilled individual. These values and skills are shaped by each family’s history, culture, religion and ongoing “conversation” about the purpose and pursuits of “the good life.” However, as some families prove to be incapable or unwilling to pass on a healthy heritage to their children, schools are intervening in order to provide this important role for children.

For instance, some “child advocates” now want to expand school breakfast programs to all children, not only the poor. One such advocate, cited in a national education journal, said the expansion was necessary because middle-class families no longer have the time to provide a nutritious breakfast for their children. “It is our goal to make sure that a morning meal is available to them,” she told Education Week in October 1992.

Parents’ lack of time, not simply lack of money, now constitutes a new responsibility for schools. Such a sense of obligation on this issue is not unique. In 1992, more than 47,000 schools served 4.16 million children in school breakfast programs. And the trend for these programs is to expand to include families who currently do not qualify because their incomes are too high. Since 1989 breakfast programs have expanded to include 6,000 more schools. Still, “child advocates” want to reach more school children with government-prepared breakfasts.

The question is not whether students and families have many unmet needs, it is whether schools should provide for them.

Child Care
One of the latest non-academic responsibilities being thrust on schools is child care. Local schools are under pressure to respond to the growing need for full-time child care for working parents. By the year 2000 it is estimated that three out of four children will have mothers who work outside the home. The trend is for more mothers to quickly re-enter the work force.

Between 1981 and 1991 the percentage of women who went back to work before their baby’s first birthday leaped 60% to represent more than half of all new mothers. In 1976,19% of births were to women in their 30s. By 1991 that number rose to 33%. Because women in their 30s are more likely to have careers, there has been a dramatic increase in the need for daily, long-term child care.

Currently, 5.7 million children ages 3 to 5 receive care and education from people other than their parents. The Council of Chief State School Officers reports that 10 million preschool children need child care while an additional 13 million school children need after-school care.

This new role will come at the cost of increased financial burdens for districts. A study by the Child Care Employee Project found that high turnover – 26% greater than the average U.S. company reports – and the low quality of care in day-care centers can be pinned on the low wages and lack of health care coverage for child care employees. As school districts take on the day-care role, they will be forced to increase wages and provide medical benefits to caregivers. Publicly funded child care workers will bring an entirely new constituency to teachers’ unions. Contract negotiations will, over time, result in increasing costs to taxpayers.

“We want to make this a career people are really proud of and able to carry on,” March Whitebook, director of the Child Care Employee Project, told Education Week in March 1993. Some experts estimate the cost of providing such a system of care will reach $23 billion each year.

Dancing On The Family’s Grave
Liberals in the new “pro-family” movement seem almost happy that the traditional family is staggering under society’s pressures. Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, recently stated:

“America’s families are under siege. And we must come to their aid. For if we, America’s educators, are to be effective advocates for children, we must first be effective advocates for parents. We must march to the forefront of the pro-family movement. We must reclaim this territory from all those whose restrictive definition of the term family is derived from watching reruns of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver.”

One mother who attended a parent school meeting to hear about a new “family friendly” program being implemented at her children’s school by Yale University was shocked.

“Their opening remarks were, ‘Ozzie and Harriet are dead,’” recalled the mother. “And they said our local school provides the answer: full-service day care for children 6 months and up, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., including breakfast. They were telling us, ‘Go get a life. We’ll raise your kids.’”

An irony many educators don’t understand is the fact that while schools take on more and more responsibilities for the “whole child,” parents do not become more involved to help the teachers. In fact, poor relations between parents and teachers have prompted many educators to leave the profession. One survey found that 40% of teachers polled listed lack of parental support and cooperation as their primary reason for considering quitting education as a career.

Yet, in all the fretting about lack of parental involvement, few people consider a connection between education’s move to expand its role in raising children, and parents’ complacency about helping educators.

This may be due largely to inattentiveness more than protest. Some parents like the new responsibilities schools are taking with their children. They have found other things to do with their time. Consequently, while school officials speak more and more about the need for parental involvement, the school’s new mission requires less of it.

Unless we re-think the purpose of public schools, the tragic result will be a school system and a society that neither cares for its children effectively nor educates them sufficiently.  

Eric Buehrer is the author of The Public Orphanage: How Public Schools are Making Parents Irrelevant