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Debate Over Family-Leave Legislation Reveals Rift in the Education Community

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By Deborah L. Cohen

Washington--In 1988, when the board of directors of the National Association of State Boards of Education first considered whether to back federal family-leave legislation, the majority opted to oppose it.

Voting the next year on whether to maintain that stand, board members were evenly divided. As a result, says Helen Fox, associate director of governmental affairs for nasbe, the association has a "hands-off policy" on the legislation, which mandates unpaid leave for parents to care for newborn or newly adopted children or ill family members.

The "family and medical leave act," which awaits Senate action after passing the House this month, has drawn the active support of the nation's two largest teachers' unions and the National pta, as well as the tacit approv6al of a handful of school-related groups.

Like nasbe however, other groups--wary of federally mandated benefits or policies that could undercut contract negotiations or school schedules--remain cool, opposed, or indifferent to the idea of letting the federal government set the standard on family leave.

"Even members who were opposed to us taking a position or opposed to the legislation didn't oppose it on the merits of parental leave," recalls Brenda L. Welburn, nasbe's deputy executive director. "They were divided on whether it was a labor or a family issue."

To members of a coalition of more than 130 children's-welfare, civil-rights, labor, health, and religious groups supporting the federal legislation, it is both.

Backers say guaranteeing parents time off and job security during periods of family need will curb worker stress and increase productivity. In addition, they contend, allowing parents to attend to children personally in their first months or during an illness, in the long term, will enhance children's well-being and bolster their chances of success.

"This policy is such a simple investment toward promoting children's welfare and, more broadly, families' welfare, that virtually everybody in the coalition sees it that way," says Donna Lenhoff, legal director for the Women's Legal Defense Fund, which heads the Family and Medical Leave Coalition.

But for many education groups, the issue is anything but simple.

None opposes the concept of family leave, and all say the vast majority of school districts offer parental-leave policies that often are more generous than the federal bill would require.

But the issue has forced school-related groups to weigh their philosophical support for policies that support families against their concerns as employers.

The American Association of School Administrators is the only school group whose advisory committee has voted consistently, most recently this month, to oppose the bill.

"These are very good people and good educators, and they are very pro-child," Bruce Hunter, aasa's associate executive director, says of the association's advisory committee on federal policy and legislation. "On the other hand, they need to do what they think is good for schools."

But some proponents argue that educators who espouse support for policies that foster healthy child development and active parental involvement--but will not endorse a federal family-leave bill--have opened themselves up to criticism.

"Supporting families and parental involvement is one of the most talked about issues in America today," says Arnold Fege, director of governmental relations for the pta. "But when we're all asked to sacrifice on behalf of parents and families, we don't respond."

"There is no group that should be more cognizant" of the need to promote favorable family policies, says one observer, "than the one concerned with getting children ready to learn."

School Impact Softened

The "family and medical leave act," first introduced five years ago and passed on a 237-to-187 vote by the House this month, would require firms with more than 50 employees to grant workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for a newborn baby, a newly adopted child, or a newly placed foster child; a seriously ill child, parent, or spouse; or their own serious illness. (See Education Week, May 16, 1990.)

At the urging of the National School Boards Association, members of the House Education and Labor Committee added amendments softening the bill's impact on school districts to avoid educational disruptions when teachers take leave.

The bill would allow districts to:

Require that employees return from leave at the start of a new semester, rather than in the final few weeks of the previous one.

Require workers to schedule a block of leave or temporarily reassign them when medical treatment requires frequent absences.

Reassign teachers to different classes on their return from leave if current local policies permit.

A 1987 nsba survey of more than 300 school districts showed that 97.5 percent had written policies offering unpaid leave for the birth of a child; 42.6 percent allowed up to a year of absence, and 16.9 percent set a maximum of two years. About 96 percent of districts reported that they offered employees unpaid leave to care for newly adopted children, and an equally large number offered leave to care for an ill family member.

More than half of the district policies made workers eligible for leave from the first day of their employment, while the federal bill requires a year's employment and 1,000 hours on the job in the last year.

'Classic Power Politics'

Despite its victory in the House, the bill still faces a showdown in the Senate and has drawn opposition from business groups and a veto threat from the White House, which opposes federally mandated benefits.

Educators leery of the bill also say it could remove a "bargaining chip" in local contract negotations.

Nasbe board members who opted not to back the bill "didn't feel it would be consistent with our general reluctance to have mandates and to interfere with collective-bargaining activities," Ms. Welburn says.

Districts for years have had generous and comprehensive family-leave policies, adds Michael Resnick, associate executive director of the n.s.b.a. "That doesn't mean that we as an organization representing local governmental units support the federal government superimposing on us their mechanisms."

The n.s.b.a. withdrew its opposition when the bill was amended to limit its impact on schools. But it still does not endorse the measure.

The changes did not, however, soften the a.a.s.a.'s stand. While members of the committee that unanimously opposed the bill all "had provisions in their district contracts that were more generous than the federal law," Mr. Hunter says, "they didn't want the federal government mandating a benefit."

Calling the bill a "classic example of power politics by unions," Jack R. Anderson, a member of the a.a.s.a. federal policy committee and the chairman of the federal legislation committee for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, questions "whether it is appropriate for unions to negotiate local working conditions with the Congress."

"I don't think it was drafted, debated, and passed based on a burning desire to improve the social fabric of this country," he says, adding that, if lawmakers "wanted to do something in this area, why didn't they insist that it be negotiated at the local level and take into consideration local conditions?"

He also voices doubts about districts' ability to monitor implementation, handle grievances, and ensure "continuity of educational services" under the bill--despite the "minor changes" added on the n.s.b.a.'s behalf.

"I have a feeling we are going to see the need for a lot of parental care around holidays and traditional times when people like to take off," he says.

Consequences of Neglect

Among school-related groups, only the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National pta--groups representing teachers and parents--lobbied actively for the bill as f.m.l.a. coalition members.

The bill "responds to a whole variety of societal concerns--from the well-being of children in their earliest years to the rights of workers to the changing demographics of American society," says Michael Edwards, manager of Congressional relations for the nea

"This is the first step in what this country should be doing for families and for workers," adds Elaine K. Shocas, associate director of legislation for the aft

But despite their concerns as employers, other groups representing school management also have voiced support for the measure.

Satisfied that the n.s.b.a.-backed changes would "permit school districts to allow leave time without compromising the education of its students," the New York State School Boards Association urged its Congressional delegation in a May 4 letter to support the bill.

"We want to be supportive of legislation that is pro-family," says William J. Pape, a spokesman.

While the National Association of Elementary School Principals shared n.s.b.a.'s initial concerns, says Samuel G. Sava, the group's executive director, "the bill meets one of our goals in trying to ensure that even though we've had this massive change in society, we need to find ways for parents to be with their children in need."

The Council of the Great City Schools also favors the bill, "on the assumption that what's good for families and children from the earliest date will ultimately be good for the state of education," says Michael Casserly, the group's associate director for legislation.

Urban superintendents, he observes, "are school people who each day have to contend with the consequences of too many neglected kids."

The Council of Chief State School Officers also supports federally mandated family leave, says Mark Gittleman, a legislative associate.

A Missed Opportunity?

But Mr. Fege of the pta contends that the lack of unity--and "passion"--among education groups on the issue is "clearly and unequivocally" a mistake.

"There is a difference between assuring that the bill that passes has the least possible impact on you and, on the other hand, fighting for the precise objectives [it] is supposed to achieve," he says.

Because of its concern for parents forced to choose between an infant or child's welfare and their job security, the pta "pulled out all the stops" to back the measure, Mr. Fege says.

The broader education community, however, may have "lost an opportunity" to support one "peg" of a federal policy linking the needs of children and families, he and others argue.

"Maybe we really haven't made the case that those early days and weeks are instrumental to bonding between the child and parent and ultimately the development of the child," Mr. Fege says.

"Everybody is for and against [the bill] on business reasons; nobody has really looked on it as a human development and growth issue," adds Edward F. Zigler, the Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale University and the director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. "It takes vision on the part of leaders to see the relationship between what happens when the baby is born and what kind of human being that baby is going to become 20 years later."

Other groups in the f.m.l.a. coalition offer similar arguments.

Because the period after birth is so critical, "it is important not to have to worry about job security" and to ensure that the time with the child is "as stress-free as possible," says Mary Crosby, director of government affairs for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also highlighted the bill's value to children.

Before endorsing the bill, "there was a general consensus that yes, this did affect our employees as small businesspeople," recalls Susan Campbell, assistant director of the group's Washington office. But the a.a.p.'s "strong position on the importance of the bill to children and families" took precedence, she says.

"It's a pro-family statement," adds David S. Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America.

A nasbe endorsement, adds the association's Ms. Welburn, would have been "consistent" with the role of school boards as child advocates--"especially at a time when we have so many other things going on in the organization that are pro-family and challenging schools to look at families in a way they never had before."

Not Far Enough?

In 1985, the Yale Bush Center Advisory Committee on Infant Care Leave advised that parents be granted a minimum leave of six months, with partial income replacement for three months and job security for the whole period.

Indeed, some groups who have taken no position on the bill, including the National Association for the Education of Young Children, have questioned whether it goes far enough.

Barbara A. Willer, information-services director of the naeyc, recalls that members questioned "whether 12 weeks is the most developmentally appropriate time" to interrupt the parent-child bond.

"We would not want to support legislation that would end up, because of its timing, negatively impacting children," she says.

In discussions on the bill, she adds, "there was real concern that its focus would be primarily on middle- and upper-class families who could afford to take the leave," rather than "the low-income working families under the most stress."

Adds Mr. Zigler: "The bill is so weak I had to really examine my conscience whether I wanted to support it."

Mr. Fege argues, however, that remaining resistance to the bill reflects "short-sightedness," especially when the President and the governors have set a goal to ensure that all children are ready for school.

Asked at a May 16 news conference to justify a White House threat to veto the bill, Mr. Bush cited "complaints" he had heard from governors about mandated benefits.

His remarks prompted a telegram from Gov. Richard F. Celeste of Ohio, who noted that the National Governors' Association has not addressed family leave in its discussions on federal mandates.

"I must take strong exception to your application of that concern to the issue of family leave," wrote Mr. Celeste, chairman of the nga's committee on human resources.

"Indeed, I along with many of my colleagues are appalled that among the industrialized nations, the U.S. and South Africa are the only countries with no family leave provision in statute," said Mr. Celeste, who urged Mr. Bush to reconsider his veto threat.

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