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Should working parents get paid time for school involvement?

Limited paid leave prevents many parents from attending school activities. A California assemblyman says they shouldn't have to choose between work and their child's education.

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    Andre Callicut spends time with his children, Logan and Avery, in their home in Hingham, Massachusetts in this September 2014 file photo. Mr. Callicut a stay-at-home dad; his wife works in finance.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/ The Christian Science Monitor
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Kids in elementary school might get three field trips a year. How about their parents?

California Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) believes working parents should be guaranteed three days of paid leave for their children's school-related activities: field trips, concerts, and teacher meetings that many would love to attend, but have to forego because of work.

"We must stop passively bemoaning the state of our schools, and do something to engage families in the educational process and the school community," Mr. Gatto says in a press release announcing his proposal to offer 24 hours of paid leave per year. "AB 2405 will allow parents to play an active role in their children’s success, without worrying about putting food on the table."

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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a fellow Californian, made headlines this winter for his decision to take two months off after his first child was born, amid a wave of tech companies expanding their options for parental leave. At Facebook, parents of either gender can now enjoy four months paid leave; competitors like Netflix, Microsoft, and Amazon have also jumped on board. 

But even as workers' advocates rejoice that the US may be ever-so-slowly catching up with the rest of the industrialized world on paid maternity leave, another question remains: What happens to that important quality time once the child's in school?

Research suggests that parental involvement boosts students' outcomes, whether in class grades, behavior, or goal-setting. New York City, in particular, has staked its new education policies on the importance of getting parents into school for teacher conferences and open houses, in hopes of strengthening parent-teacher relationships and community decision-making, ensuring parents have the information and trust they need to keep their kids on the right track. 

"Bringing families into their child’s education is essential," the city's school chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said last fall. "Study after study shows that family engagement improves student performance and attendance."

For many Millennial parents, carving out family time from hectic careers is a priority. "Millennials saw their parents forsake aspects of life like family life in their pursuit of career success and didn't always like what they saw," Wharton School of Business Professor Stewart Friedman told North Carolina's Gaston Gazette. It's particularly critical for those whose work is usually done online, says Friedman, since constant availability makes it "so much harder now to create boundaries between work and the rest of life."

That's the urge driving big tech firms to extend their parental leave, and stress the possibility of balancing quality family time with demanding careers. But that's a choice many other workers, particularly hourly-paid employees, can't afford. 

Netflix, for example, originally offered up to a year of "unlimited" parental paid leave to its salaried workers, but not hourly-paid staff; the streaming and DVD company changed its rules after an online petition brought attention to its two-tier parenting policy. 

Fewer than two thirds of private sector workers have paid sick leave; among the lowest-paid quartile, that drops to less than one third. Only 5 percent of workers in the lowest-paid 25 percent of US employees have paid family leave, while more than four times as many workers in the highest-paid 25 percent do, according to the Department of Labor

Unpaid leave is also hard to come by. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees up to 12 weeks unpaid leave, only applies to workers who have been with companies of more than 50 people for at least a year, and work at least 24 hours per week. That leaves out many low-income workers, particularly those who work the equivalent of full-time or more by stringing together multiple jobs. 

Gatto, who introduced his bill in the California state legislature last week, believes "Too many parents are prevented from participating in their children's education due to economic barriers," as he said in a press release. The bill would extend California's Family-School and Partnership Act, which provides 40 hours of protected, unpaid time for working parents, grandparents and guardians, to provide pay for 24 of those hours. AB 2405 would apply only to companies with more than 25 workers.

"There’s a trend in the United States that people are pushing toward a more humane society," he said, according to CBS. "You end up with kids who are more engaged in their school, parents who understand better what their students are working on and then you end up having a more productive workforce in the future."

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