When school's out, where are the kids?

School is almost out. But most kids won't be on the loose. For months, the working parents of millions of 6- to 12-year-olds have been figuring out summer child care.

Some have found great camps, and effective summer-school programs, or pressed relatives into service. But others may have to settle for less enriching activities or leave their children unsupervised at times. Are these less fortunate children at risk of physical, social, or emotional harm? Will they lose ground academically?

Remarkably, no one knows. Attention is aimed at teacher quality and out-of-school time during the school year. Yet, why kids thrive, stall, or lose ground in the summer is uncharted territory.

New Urban Institute research shows that slightly more than one-third of elementary schoolchildren with working parents are in relatives' care during the summer. Another 24 percent are in summer programs. Far fewer are trusted to nannies or child-care programs in other people's homes. While this scenario might seem predictable, two of the more surprising findings point to potential trouble spots:

Although overall spending on child care did not increase during the summer, child-care expenses for low- and higher-income families diverge dramatically. For families with incomes less than twice the poverty level (around $29,300 for a family of three), expenses drop by 24 percent in summer because these families lean mainly on relatives. In contrast, expenses of better-off families rise 34 percent – perhaps reflecting the cost of longer hours in care and more expensive programs and camps.

What are parents getting for their money? Parents, educators, and policymakers need to know whether spending less on care means that low-income kids are getting less enriching care, and whether that can hold them back when September rolls around again.

Academic losses occur among low-income children during summer – that much is known. But are lackluster summer activities partly to blame? Finding out would make it easier to decide whether to beef up summer-enrichment programs, increase summer-school course quality and access, or offer more support to communities trying to launch or expand summer programs.

Another surprise was the extent to which children are left unsupervised during the summer. Following the school-year pattern, more than 1 in 10 kids regularly spend time alone or with a sibling under 13; but these children spend twice as much time unsupervised in the summer – 10 hours a week on average – as during the school year.

Should we be worried? Studies conducted during the school year find that the negative effects of unsupervised time are the most apparent in younger children and low-income children. Why wouldn't these effects be exacerbated during the summer?

It's time to demystify summer care. Policymakers must realize that education policy is only as good as its weakest link.

In the recently passed No Child Left Behind Act, lawmakers committed close to $15 billion dollars in 2002 to improve student performance. What good is this investment if student gains erode or evaporate over the summer? Until they know for sure, policymakers should at least maintain current limited funding for summer programs – especially for low-income children – and promote high-quality child care all year round.

In addition, we need to know more about the quality of summer care so as to gauge its impact on all aspects of children's development. A starting point would be simply to compare the quality of summer options for low- and higher-income families.

Polls show that the public cares deeply about accountability in the schools. Americans want assessments and they want action when the assessments show students aren't learning.

If we want kids to thrive, we should pay more attention to the out-of-school months.

• Jeffrey Capizzano is a research associate in the Population Studies Center at the Urban Institute. Matthew W. Stagner is a principal research associate in the Population Studies Center.

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