Teaching Profession

Teachers Are Pushing for Paid Parental Leave. How It’s Going

By Elizabeth Heubeck — June 12, 2024 7 min read
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Kathryn Vaughn has dedicated her career to teaching other people’s children. When it came time to have her own children, though, she experienced what felt like a significant lack of support.

After years of unexplained infertility, Vaughn and her husband were thrilled to learn they were expecting their first child, due September 2021. But Vaughn soon turned her attention to the practical business of figuring out how much time she could afford to stay home with her newborn.

Like teachers across the country, Vaughn, an elementary art teacher for the Tipton County Schools in Brighton, Tenn., received no paid maternity leave. She had to use her accrued sick days, which she began “hoarding,” sometimes forfeiting prenatal health care visits to maximize time at home with her newborn after the birth. Ultimately, Vaughn had just a 13-day maternity leave before returning to work.

“I returned to work before my body was able to heal,” she said. “It was pretty awful.”

The following summer, Vaughn became pregnant again. On the first day of the new school year, she miscarried. But with less than two weeks of paid time off (between sick and personal days), she chose to work through her loss. She and her husband planned to try to get pregnant again right away, and she wanted to reserve those days for another potential maternity leave.

Vaughn’s experience is not unique. Only a fraction of the nation’s public school teachers receive paid parental leave upon the birth or adoption of a child. A 2022 National Council on Teacher Quality analysis of 148 large districts across the nation in 2022 found that just 18 percent provided full or partially paid parental leave of some kind.

Heather Peske, NCTQ’s president, said the council’s analysis found few trends among the types of districts that offer paid parental leave. “We did not see patterns. Just lots of variation,” she said. “Overall, not enough districts are offering paid family leave.”

That is changing, albeit slowly. Since NCTQ’s 2022 analysis, the push for paid parental leave has gained traction around the country. In the spring of 2023, for instance, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and South Carolina enacted new laws offering some form of paid maternity leave for educators.

This year, activity on the paid parental leave front continues, with uneven results.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, signed a bill in April doubling paid parental leave for public school employees from three to six weeks.

Meanwhile, in May, a measure in Alabama that would have required local boards of education to provide eight weeks of paid parental leave for birth, adoption, miscarriage, or stillbirth passed overwhelmingly in the state senate, before being blocked by the senate president, who cited budget concerns.

The move incensed the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, a Democrat, who told legislators: “None of you are pregnant, ever will be pregnant, nor will have a baby. You have no idea what it’s like; not only the physical things we have to go through, but the mental and emotional things we have to go through.”

Following is a look at who has championed some of the recent efforts to enact paid parental leave, the obstacles that prevent or slow implementation, and what advocates see as the ramifications of failing to provide paid parental leave to educators.

Who’s championing paid parental leave

Many of the educators who have pushed for paid parental leave in their state or district have been motivated by their or their colleagues’ personal experience.

Vaughn began advocating for legislative change in Tennessee in the throes of teaching full time, caring for her young son, and reeling from a miscarriage. She took to social media; wrote an impact statement about working through the loss of a pregnancy on behalf of A Better Balance, a national nonprofit with an office in Nashville, Tenn., that advocates for family-friendly reforms; and spoke directly to state politicians about the issue.

Ultimately, Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, signed into law last July the Teacher Parental Leave Act, which provides eligible public school educators and administrators six weeks of paid parental leave within a year of a birth, adoption, or stillbirth.

Former New York City public school high school math teacher John Troutman McCrann, who now works full-time for the United Federation of Teachers, advocated along with other colleagues for paid parental leave at the nation’s largest school district.

The initiative gained traction when nearly 85,000 teachers and other supporters signed a petition calling for the city’s teachers’ union to fight for paid parental leave. From there, formal advocacy efforts by the United Federation of Teachers led to a June 2018 agreement with the city that guaranteed educators six weeks of paid time off for the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child.

Last year, the UFT negotiated a more generous paid parental leave policy for New York City public school teachers, McCrann said. Now, if two parents in the same household are employed by the city’s department of education and meet eligibility requirements, they can each take six weeks paid parental leave, as opposed to sharing the allotted six weeks between the two of them.

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McCrann recalled how he started advocating for paid parental leave after becoming aware of the challenges his colleagues experienced as they balanced caring for newborns, returning to work, and affording their new circumstances. “It was me and a bunch of women who were pregnant [who initially advocated for a policy],” McCrann said. “At the time, my wife and I were thinking about [having] kids.”

While teachers’ unions frequently drive advocacy for parental leave policies, McCrann said that’s not always the case. “A school board could just do the right thing,” he said, pointing out their power to initiate parental leave policies on their own.

The cost of providing paid parental leave

Cost rises to the forefront of any negotiation that involves paid leave, McCrann said. It also tends to be the deciding factor when lawmakers vote against providing paid parental leave, like in Alabama this year.

In California, efforts to provide teachers with paid leave have stalled over the past several years, with Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, citing the financial burden on school districts as the stumbling block.

“Providing every California worker with paid family leave is a noble goal and a priority for my administration,” Newsom said when vetoing legislation that would have provided educators with paid parental leave in 2019. “However, this bill will likely result in annual costs of tens of millions of dollars that should be considered as part of the annual budget process and as part of local collective bargaining.”

State legislators have introduced a similar measure this year. Currently, California Assembly Bill 2901, which would provide educators with 14 weeks of paid disability and parental leave, is pending in the state senate’s education committee.

McCrann argues that the cost of paying teachers when they’re on leave with a new child might be overestimated. “School boards are going to try to say: ‘We can’t afford to hire a new teacher,’” he said. “But by me taking leave as a teacher, that doesn’t cost [the school system] double, because substitute teachers get paid less.”

And paid leave can help improve teacher retention and morale, experts say.

“If teachers are not given access to paid family leave, the choices they have are pretty slim,” NCTQ’s Peske said. They can hoard their sick days, try to have a child in the summer, take unpaid leave, go back to work before they’re emotionally or physically ready, or decide that they don’t want to return to teaching after having a child, she notes. None of these are necessarily attractive options for expectant parents or the school system where they work.

“Without acknowledging or implementing family-supportive policies, we do stand to lose people who are strong teachers,” Peske said.

At least one estimate places the total costs to replace a teacher between $9,000 and $21,000.

Unquantifiable costs of providing paid parental leave—or not—are also at stake.

Peske notes several proven positive health outcomes to all family members when parents receive sufficient time to care for children in the early stages of their lives. Evidence links paid leave to improved parental and infant health and well-being, improved long-term father-child relationships, and even lower divorce rates.

“The ability that I had to be at home with my son for six weeks was transformative for our relationship. And that matters to the public school system,” McCrann said. “There must be a way to factor that cost in.”

Vaughn, who is expecting another child in September, will have fewer tough choices to make this time around. “I feel so much better knowing I have this paid leave,” she said. “I feel more free to go to doctors appointments. Before I would try to skip them.”

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