New Life For Parental Leave

Teachers are paid to nurture other people's children. What happens when they want time to nurture their own?

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In the fall of 1987, Karen Cronk—English teacher, field hockey coach, student council adviser, grant recipient—found out she would be having one more role to fill: mother. It was her first pregnancy. She and her husband, Rob, planned for Karen to spend a year on leave after the birth to take care of the baby and smooth the transition from “couple” to “family.”

The Boothbay, Me., school board saw things differently. Cronk's request for parental leave was denied.

“I was devastated,” she says. “I had given five years of my life to that school, and I'm not the kind of teacher who arrives at 8 and leaves at 3:00.”

She's also not the kind of person who easily takes no for an answer. At the next school board meeting, Cronk presented a long list of her accomplishments. “Basically, I tooted my own horn and asked them if they wanted their investment in me as a teacher continued,” she says. Letters from her principal and the head of the English department added weight to her argument. The board voted unanimously in favor of the leave.

During the next 12 months, Cronk stayed in touch with the school and attended departmental meetings. She returns to the classroom this fall.

Although Cronk's story had a happy ending, not all of her colleagues around the country are so fortunate. When districts have no written parental-leave policy, teachers may find themselves having to resign their jobs if they want to stay home with their baby during its first year.

No one has tallied how many of the more than 15,000 school districts in the United States voluntarily offer parental leaves. There are “a considerable number” of districts—especially smaller and rural systems—that do not offer leaves, says Representative Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), who is co-sponsoring a major family and medical leave bill in the Congress. And most states have not filled the vacuum. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only seven states—Connecticut, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Maine—have passed some type of parental-leave legislation—all in the past three years. (Maine set an eight-week minimum standard several months after Karen Cronk's leave was approved.)

The National School Boards Association, however, which has conducted informal surveys, claims that most districts already have leave policies and that they're often more liberal than those mandated under current or proposed federal legislation.

In New York City, for instance, public school teachers are “not expected to return until the September after their child's fourth birthdate,” says board of education spokesman Frank Sobrino. The unpaid leave applies to both natural and adoptive parents, and guarantees the same job, or an equivalent post, upon return.

Although it is difficult to find a leave policy that can top New York's, public school systems in Memphis, Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver, among many others, offer one- to two-year unpaid leaves.

Nonetheless, labor and family advocacy groups charge that, overall, the United States is still in the Dark Ages when it comes to enabling working parents to take time off to care for a newborn, newly-adopted, or sick child. Helen Blank, director of the Children's Defense Fund's child-care division, points out that, “In most Western industrialized countries, paid parental leave is available. It is not in the United States. And efforts in Congress to mandate even unpaid parental leave have not yet come to fruition.” Consequently, the advocacy groups have been increasing the pressure for a federally mandated parental-leave policy for all workers. The last major federal legislation in this area was the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which entitles pregnant women to job-protecting health and disability benefits equal to those received by workers who need time off from work because of illness or injury. Efforts since then to provide workers with parental leave have had little effect.

In 1985, Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) introduced the first bill mandating parental leave. Her Parental and Disability Leave Act would have required employers to provide a minimum of 18 weeks of unpaid leave for the care of a newborn, newly adopted child, seriously ill child, or parent. The bill never made it to the House floor.

A second version, watered down by compromises, met with the same fate. Now gestating in Congress is a third version, pruned even further, called the Family and Medical Leave Act. This bill requires employers to provide a minimum leave time of 10 weeks. Sponsors Schroeder, Roukema, and Representative William Clay (D-Mo.) expect the bill to make it to the House floor this year. A companion bill is pending in the Senate. Roukema believes that the need for a national leave policy has never been greater. “There has been a steep rise in the number of women in the work force with young children,” she says. “And over 50 percent of these women have children under age 3.”

The nation's two major teachers' unions have been actively involved in the fight for parental-leave legislation. The Family and Medical Leave Act has the backing of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. The National School Boards Association, on the other hand, initially opposed the bill.

“This legislation was created primarily with the business sector in mind,” says Michael Resnick, NSBA's associate executive director. He notes that the schools have timing concerns—semesters, for example—that are not relevant to business. What happens, he asks, if a teacher leaves at such crucial times as the final grading period?

Earlier this year, the NSBA's concerns about the Family and Medical Leave Act prompted negotiations between the House Labor and Management Subcommittee, NSBA, and both teachers' unions. The result was a two-part amendment: A teacher on leave who would like to resume work during the final two or three weeks of the semester may be asked to extend the leave until the beginning of the following semester. And a teacher who requires intermittent leave for an extended period of time (to receive periodic physical therapy for a back injury, for instance) may be required to take the period as full-time leave, or switch to an administrative position that would be less disruptive to the classroom.

Although the NSBA says it will no longer fight the bill, neither will it support it.

“It's not a question of whether leaves are right; it's a question of whether it's right for the federal government to be involved,” says Resnick. “We believe that local school boards were elected to govern school districts. They should have the authority to develop their own policies.”

New Jersey's Roukema quite clearly believes that federal intervention is essential. And she points out that teachers should support her bill for reasons that go beyond the individual needs of teachers. “It's a family bill,” she says, “and that means it could affect all the children who will eventually walk through the classroom door.”

Vol. 01, Issue 01, Pages 82-83

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