Why Are Child Care Programs Open When Schools Are Not?

Historians in the News
tags: Child Care, social services

Although school buildings in Philadelphia will remain closed this fall, St. Mary’s Nursery School, a secular child care center founded in 1964, will remain open. St. Mary’s, which serves children ages 18 months to 12 years, typifies an odd juxtaposition:

As more public schools are moving to remote learning, child care programs and after-school providers in major cities are taking in more children of families who cannot work remotely.

The duality of the conversations around child cares programs and public schools is rooted in a perceived gap between what “care” and “education” mean. That gap has set the two sectors on different paths of funding, governance and professional power.

Traci Childress, the executive director of St. Mary’s, can see this schism playing out for her program. “There’s a disrespect to early childhood and out-of-school-time providers that’s inherent in just assuming we’re going to make it work for everybody without giving us funding or support,” Childress said.

That sense of disrespect is not new because of the pandemic. Sonya Michel, Ph.D., a University of Maryland historian who has written a book on the evolution of U.S. child care policy, said, “Child care for so long has been associated with poverty.”

The first child care centers, known as day nurseries, were established by charities in the mid-19th century and were holding places for the children of low-income or single working mothers.

Until quite recently, Dr. Michel added, child care had a negative connotation in a society that has long looked down on mothers who work. This stands in stark contrast to the often high-minded ideals that animated the 19th-century common school movement that gave the United States the public education as we know today. Horace Mann, considered the “father” of the movement, spoke of education as the bedrock of democracy in his 1839 speech, “The Necessity of Education in a Republican Government.”

Public school leaders and organizations have expressed resentment this summer at having child care concepts applied to their work. “Schools are not a day care,” Cindy Marten, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, said recently on the news program “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.

“Schools are about educating our students, and it’s about our future, and we’re not cramming a bunch of students into a classroom until it’s safe to do so,” she continued.


The fact that a low-wage sector so heavily made up of women of color is being asked by society to assume more risk by remaining open speaks to “the disposable nature of this work — the less-than approach to and appreciation of this work,” said Myra Jones-Taylor, Ph.D., the chief policy officer at Zero to Three, a group that advocates for issues about babies and toddlers.

Read entire article at New York Times