The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 6, 2011

The Child Summer Care Scramble

May 6, 2011

The late-winter and spring months can be stressful for working families trying to figure out what their children will do during the summer. Even families lucky enough to have set up relatively stable school and after-school care arrangements for the academic year face potential chaos if their summer arrangements haven’t gelled. And families who have already been struggling to find reliable and good after-school arrangements must find care for another 6-7 hours each day. What to do?

Finding the right child care is always difficult, but summertime care poses unique challenges.  Simply balancing your child’s academic or developmental needs with what they want or are willing to do is hard enough.   But even for parents who can afford what they want, it becomes mind-boggling once scheduling, cost, transportation, safety, and the availability of care come into play. Last summer, when I faced this knot of choices with my then-seven-year-old, I was startled to find myself creating a spreadsheet with the different options, weeks, costs, and schedules to map out the complexities. And I scrambled to find someone I trusted who could give me the inside story on the quality of the options so I could make an informed choice.  Then, as summer wore on, I found myself wondering whether the common approach of patching together a series of different summer options—each with a change of setting, subject, staff, and other children—works any better for kids (who need and crave continuity, stability, and connections) than it does for their parents.

I also can’t help but wonder how lower-income families manage making these choices given that many of them face even greater barriers in arranging child care.  Most have less scheduling flexibility and more complicated work schedules, less money to pay for that great program that their child is so excited about, more transportation challenges, and more concerns about the safety of  leaving school-age children alone (since more live in dicey neighborhoods).   Depending on where they live, they may have significantly fewer options, or fewer good quality options.  And some low-income families face additional barriers such as limited English proficiency or low literacy, poor mental health, or social isolation that make it even harder to get and use information on their child-care choices.

Finally, research shows that stability and continuous arrangements are particularly important for lower-income children’s development. But we know relatively little about how this plays out in the summer. What we do know is that while higher- and lower-income children make similar achievement gains during the school year, the progress of lower-income children stops in summer while better-off children keep developing.  Indeed, researchers suggest that two-thirds of the infamous 9th-grade achievement gap between lower- and higher-income children can be explained by differences in summer learning opportunities. Not surprisingly, higher-income families also spend more per week on their children’s summer care than they did during the school year and lower-income families spend less. Unfortunately, a number of families whose children are at greatest risk may be precisely those least able to overcome these challenges. And many in this predicament are likely to live in the communities where few services are available.

Children’s minds, bodies, and interests don’t stop growing just because summer arrives, but public investment in their development too often takes a vacation.  The tragedy—concern about school achievement notwithstanding—is that we don’t have a focused, targeted strategy to address these problems.  Instead we force parents to go through a set of “survival of the fittest” challenges trying to make sense of patchwork of programs and offerings by local school districts, local governments, summer care providers, and others.  And, a quick internet search suggests summer programs are coming under the recession’s budget ax, making the challenges even greater and limiting new investments.

But this too shall end, and when the economy does recover, sound policy proposals await. These include a focus on such important issues as steady and expanded program funding, supporting participation and program quality, and making summer options a priority for school reform strategies.  However, as we consider, design, and implement these options, it is essential that we focus on the parents and children at the other end.  We need to make it easier to understand, find, and choose what works for our kids, and today’s “survival of the fittest” approach to summer care needs to go.  

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