- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2000

No more teachers, no more books …? The official start of summer this month will be a welcome break for students and teachers. But if Vice President Al Gore has his way, summer vacations may soon be a thing of the past.

As part of his "New Family Agenda," Mr. Gore has announced a federal initiative "to make use of more than 500 additional hours in summer and after-school time," equivalent to an extra four months of school per year. Mr. Gore would use federal spending and tax credits to encourage families to use after-school programs, expand school hours, and recruit new staff.

In one sense, Mr. Gore's initiative is unsurprising. The administration has long promoted programs like those in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where schools stay open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., five days per week, year round. And Mr. Gore's plan mirrors a nationwide trend: As student achievement has declined over the past 30 years, school districts have responded by requiring longer schooldays, longer school years and mandatory summer school.

But in terms of scale, Mr. Gore proposes nothing short of a revolutionary expansion of the role of public schools in family life. Consider its centerpiece: a little known federal program called 21st Century Learning Centers, for which Mr. Gore pledges to "dramatically" increase funding.

To become eligible for Learning Center funds, a public school must carry out four or more activities from government's wish list. These include "literacy education; senior citizen programs; child care, integrated education, health, social service, recreational, or cultural programs; summer and weekend school programs in conjunction with recreation programs; nutrition and health programs; expanded library service hours; telecommunications and technology education; parenting skills; support and training for child-care workers; employment counseling, training and placement; services for individuals who leave school before graduation; and services for individuals with disabilities." In short, Mr. Gore's plan would transform public schools into comprehensive, one-stop social service outlets.

So far, about 1,600 public schools have become federal Learning Centers.

Mr. Gore claims the "New Family Agenda" will reduce delinquency and crime, teen sex and pregnancy, and dropout rates. "It's in those after-school hours that most juvenile crime, teen pregnancy and alcohol and drug use occur," Mr. Gore says. He assures voters this raft of new programs will not displace parents' efforts, just supplement them. "Government doesn't raise children; families do," Mr. Gore says. "But we can make it easier, not harder, to be a strong family."

Yet it is hard to imagine how having children spend more time in government programs and less time with their parents makes for stronger families. For instance, new research by the president's Council of Economic Advisers finds that teens who eat dinner with a parent at least five days a week are less likely to smoke, use alcohol or marijuana, or have sex. They also have higher grade-point averages and are more likely to plan to attend college.

Existing after-school programs never produce such results, and it is no wonder. For it isn't the food provided at family meals that helps the children, it is the parental effort and involvement. The more time children spend away from their parents be it through extending after-school programs or eliminating summer vacations the weaker the bond between them and the more diffuse the influence parents have on their children's behavior.

That is one reason why neither parents nor students seem to desire these extra programs: an estimated 40 percent of seats in after-school programs are empty. A recent YMCA survey found teen-agers' top concern is "not having enough time together" with their parents, and more than 40 percent of parents agree that the time they spend with their teens is inadequate. But all the after-school programs in the world will not give parents and children more time together. If anything, an expanded role for schools gives them less.

The federal government could do more for families by doing less. A tax cut would give parents more money for after-school care or let them reduce their hours and spend more time at home. States could adopt universal tuition tax credits so families could pay for schools of their choosing, with or without after-school programs.

There are some things parents simply do better than the government. Raising children is one of them. Using tax money to encourage children to spend their time at "Learning Centers" rather than with their parents is at best useless and at worst harmful. There are only so many hours in a child's day. Empirical research not to mention plain common sense suggests government policy should give families more time together, not less.

Darcy Ann Olsen is director of education and child policy at the Cato Institute and author of a new report titled "12-Hour School Days? Why Government Should Leave After-School Arrangements to Parents."

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