Elliot's Provocations: Summertime, Summertime (Child Care) Sadness - Early Learning Nation

Elliot’s Provocations: Summertime, Summertime (Child Care) Sadness

Elliot’s Provocations unpacks current events in the early learning world and explores how we can chart a path to a future where all children can flourish. Regarding the title, if you’re not steeped in early childhood education (ECE) lingo, a “provocation” is the field’s term—taken from the Reggio-Emilia philosophy of early education—for offering someone the opportunity to engage with an idea.

We hope this monthly column does that: provocations are certainly not answers, but we hope Elliot’s Provocations helps you pause and consider concepts in a different way.

My children’s school ends this week, and on Monday they’ll be heading to a YMCA day camp. While I’m certain they will have a great time (we’ve had nothing but good experiences with the Y in the past), that wasn’t our first choice. There were some exciting camps at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and so on a chilly January morning at 8 a.m. sharp, I dutifully logged on for the members-only early registration day… and was immediately placed via random lottery at number 1,061 in the queue. By the time my turn arrived, every single offering was sold out. I bring this up not to whine about my exceptionally privileged problems, but to emphasize a point: securing summer care is a ridiculous shared pain point for an enormous number of parents, and those of us interested in better child care policies overall should see that as an opening.

I wrote last year about the strange schism between early child care and school-aged child care, and I don’t want to belabor the point other than to say parents of school-aged children represent a shockingly untapped care constituency. Instead, I want to talk about summer care, and summer camp specifically. I recently had the chance to do a podcast recording with the American Camp Association (ACA), alongside the outstanding economist Kathryn Anne Edwards. I also don’t want to get out ahead of the podcast, so I’ll just say one part of the conversation that stood out to me was thinking about summer care needs as a door to movement-building. [UPDATE 6/7/24: The podcast is now live and available here.]

After all, one of the major mindset barriers that holds back child care policy is the idea that child care needs are entirely individual family obligations, and thus the state has little-to-no role. I frequently quote a line by sociologist Sandra Levitsky: “the conceptual shift away from thinking about one’s situation as an individual problem or as a problem caused by fate or nature, to thinking about it as a social or public problem, is widely understood to be a necessary, if insufficient, condition for political action.”

Summer care seems to offer many of the factors necessary for that conceptual shift. For one, it’s easy to see the absurdity of providing free public schools (and its child care) for seven hours a day, nine months out of the year, and then suddenly leaving a multi-month gap. While the discussion over how we got here is interesting, and has less to do with the agrarian calendar than you may think, the fact is summer’s a huge headache every year for millions and millions of families. This is also a distinctly American headache: journalist Katherine Goldstein recently wrote a post in which she reported:

I was not able to find any other Western country that has the combination of long summer breaks, no mandated paid vacation time, minimal subsidized options and a dominant cultural belief that kids need constant supervision, especially in public places. Clearly articulating all of these factors really helps me understand how we find ourselves in Hunger Games-like registration battles and spending thousands per kid per summer, just so parents can continue their jobs (emphasis hers).

Moreover, summer camp has the advantage of nostalgia. Early child care is still fighting for its reputation, and there are plenty of Americans—as many as half, in some surveys—who think young children have little business being cared for outside the home. Not so with summer camps. According to the ACA, more than 26 million kids attend a form of summer camp every year. Most have positive experiences that they look back on fondly decades after the fact; I know I do. It is what marketers might call an ‘easy sell.’

Finally, it’s worth noting that the summer camp burden falls heavily on middle- and upper-middle-class families. Lower-income families are frequently excluded from camp participation altogether due to things like cost, transportation and not being available to sit at a computer at 8 a.m. repeatedly hitting refresh as if trying to acquire a Taylor Swift concert ticket. Thus, there is a major opportunity for cross-class solidarity in improving summer care options. (Reducing the length of summer break is unlikely to be a viable lever: despite the summer scramble, year-round school remains broadly disliked by parents.)

It is not uncommon for less popular policy ideas to ride along with more popular ones. To use the example of a different ACA, the Affordable Care Act’s restriction on insurance companies discriminating due to preexisting conditions was one of the keys to its passage and its persistence in the face of opposition. Child care has its own history here: as Sally Cohen details in her excellent book on federal child care policymaking, the Child Care and Development Block Grant passed in 1990 largely as a “sidekick” to the more-popular Earned Income Tax Credit. Yet as far as I’m aware, there is currently no major national proposal around summer child care.

I don’t want to overstate the case. Creating a comprehensive birth-to-13 child care system is going to be expensive and complex, and no one is going to be hoodwinked by including a robust mechanism for increasing the supply and affordability of summer camps. We still need to argue for early care and education on its own merits, and we should not pretend that early care needs and school-aged needs are identical. I wonder, though, if summer care shouldn’t be closer to the tip of the spear, rather than a forgotten cousin.

Elliot Haspel is a nationally-recognized child & family policy expert and commentator, with a specialty in early childhood and education issues. He is the author ofCrawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It, and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita. Elliot has appeared on television as an analyst, including onThe PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, and his writings have appeared in a wide variety of top publications, including The New York Times,The Washington Post, andThe Atlantic. Elliot holds an B.A. in History from the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Elliot also writes a free semi-monthly newsletter, The Parents Aren't Alright.

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