"Work and Family Benefits for Parents of School-Age Children." By William L. Bainbridge and Steven M. Sundre. Employee Benefits Journal. June 1992:21.

WORK AND FAMILY BENEFITS FOR PARENTS OF SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN

By William L. Bainbridge and Steven M. Sundre

A significant corporate response to the demographic and labor force trends cited in the 1987 report, "Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the 21st Century," published by the Hudson Institute, can be seen in the growth of work and family programs. Major employers intensified their interest in providing child-care and elder-care programs as family benefits.

In mid-1991, corporations began to demonstrate a commitment to offering working parents assistance with their school-age children. "I'm talking economics here, basically," Fran Sussner Rodgers, President of Work/Family Directions, told NEWSWEEK. "Companies are not so much helping individuals but rather becoming the kind of place you have to be to attract the best and right kind of people." (1)

The global issue was explained recently at a national conference by Bob Keeshan who gained his fame as television's Captain Kangaroo: "Family life has changed over four decades. Most moms are in the workforce, many are divorced, 25 percent live in single-parent homes. In this wealthy nation, our principal underclass is children, over 20 percent of kids live below the poverty line. This should be of concern to the American business executive because the neglect of children is very costly public policy."(2)

PROGRAMS FOR PARENTS OF SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN

Until recently, one large group of employees not served by the emerging work & family program movement was the parent of school-age children. Many of them have neither elderly parents nor pre-school youngsters and consequently have not benefited from previous work & family initiatives.

American children spend the vast majority of their waking hours in schools. Consequently, it is not surprising that a large number of parenting problems which confront corporate employees are school related. Many of these problems are the result of poor choices of public and private schools for children. Others are a result of a lack of understanding of how to cope with the school bureaucracy.

Most people understand the importance of school choice when it comes to higher education opportunities. Until the 1990s, most people did not understand the importance of school choice at the elementary and secondary level frequently because they felt they had no choice. The "school choice movement," which started in Minnesota and is now moving across the nation, has highlighted both the importance and availability of school choice.

Over a decade ago, Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose, in their book, Free to Choose, devoted a chapter to the subject "What's Wrong with our Schools?" Their solution, "a voucher plan for elementary and secondary schooling," continues to stir controversy among school professionals. The basic concept is relatively simple. The Friedmans and others argue that parents should have the right to select a public school system for their children. According to this argument, introducing market forces into public education would begin curing some major problems everyone agrees handicap the system. Forced to compete for students, schools would likely:

  • Adopt more efficient management techniques including trimming bloated school bureaucracies.

  • Offer better pay and promotions to teachers who do a good job, thus providing a performance incentive that is simply not now in existence.

  • Respond more quickly to technological changes and other forces affecting the curriculum.

As the Employee Benefits Journal goes to press, school choice has become an important legislative issue in nearly half the states. Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska have followed Minnesota in initiating state-wide choice, and legislation has been passed or is pending in an additional twenty-two states. One interesting piece of evidence documenting the momentum which the school choice movement has generated comes from the politically oriented "think tanks." On most domestic policy issues, Washington's Brookings Institute and Heritage Foundation seem to come down on opposite sides. Frequently labeled by the news media as liberal and conservative, respectively, in this debate, however, both Brookings and Heritage have, possibly for different reasons, taken the pro-school choice stand.

When this movement is combined with a large number of corporate employees who are moving within the same geographic area and have a choice regarding their place of residence, those who are relocating across the country and those having a choice of private schools, the issue becomes an important one for corporate benefits professionals. As in the areas of insurance, child-care and elder-care, forward thinking human resource departments have accepted the responsibility of providing accurate information through which employees can make intelligent choices. Such information can help attract and retain key employees, reduce family objectives to the employment situation, boost morale, and reduce recruiting and retaining costs.

WHAT KINDS OF SCHOOLS DO PARENTS WANT?

Two years ago we were asked by the National School Boards Association to develop a report for their American School Board Journal (3) on what parents want from their schools. At a time of increased population mobility and a push for school choice, most parents want the right to select the schools their children will attend. Human resource professionals are often surprised to learn what parents are looking for in a school. We were when we summarized the results of thousands of parent responses to our SchoolMatch family profile questions. Our firm maintains a database on school systems across the U.S. and provides information on public and private schools to corporations and families interested in specific areas. Parents, we've discovered, don't necessarily look for the "biggest" and "best" when they have a chance to choose their children's schools - and they don't necessarily agree on what constitutes "best," either.

Hardly a week goes by that we don't get calls from school administrators or private school admissions directors suggesting we recommend their schools to the XYZ corporation which is opening a branch office in the region. We admire these callers' marketing sensitivity and their initiative, but they lose us when they say, "Of course, you know we have the best schools in the tri-county area..." Similar calls frequently come from realtors.

The underlying premise seems to be that everyone knows how to define "best" when it comes to school systems or private schools. Our experience with thousands of relocating families and hundreds of corporations leads us to conclude otherwise.

For one thing, many school officials, realtors and even corporate managers equate "best" with "most competitive." Our own experience as administrators probably would have led us to the same conclusion. But in fact, few parents want their children in the most academically rigorous school or the one with the highest test scores. Instead, they want their children in an environment that allows each child to excel. In particular, they want their child to be successful. Most people understand this concept very well when their colleagues or friends are selecting a college or university. People are just beginning to apply the same logic to the selection of an elementary or secondary school. In a nutshell, if the school is not a good match then the child is less likely to be successful.

THE LARGE NUMBER OF SCHOOL OPTIONS

One of the most renowned communication experts of all time, Walter Lippman, wrote in his benchmark publication, Public Opinion (4), that "...reality is the images in our heads." What is real is as much a function of perception as it is fact.

For example, in the territory that encompasses southern New Hampshire and northeastern Massachusetts there exists a widely held perception of the school systems in the two states that goes something like this: If you live in New Hampshire, you can save money on housing and taxes but you will sacrifice on quality education. This public perception creates a dilemma. In this case the question is, "Which is more important" Your children's education or your own pocketbook?" Obviously, for most families, both of these questions are important. Rather than selecting a home site in one area because "living costs are more reasonable" versus another area because "the schools are better," a family can have the best of both worlds. It can find a good school system in New Hampshire where the cost of living is perceived to be less than in Massachusetts. It can also find a "good school system" in parts of Massachusetts where housing and taxes are reasonable.

In much of this country, as the chart illustrates, the number of school system and private school options available to the family is staggeringly high. There is no reason to discount any area without a thorough examination. To either include or exclude an area based upon its publicly perceived reputation can be a big mistake. Within any area exceptions to the rule proliferate. Moreover, shifting demographic trends give reason to be skeptical of conventional wisdom when it comes to community and school quality. Many areas once regarded as elite are declining in terms of both school quality and even education level of the adult population. Areas once considered rural have become choice spots for both corporate and residential development.

Chart: Examples of Public School Systems and Private Schools by Metropolitan Area (5)

METROPOLITAN AREAPUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEMSPRIVATE SCHOOLS
Boston, MA201344
Chicago, IL267688
Hartford, CT133203
Los Angeles, CA100495
New York, NY3771,372
Philadelphia, PA204546
Providence, RI195326
St Louis, MO91308
Seattle, WA50104
Trenton, NJ227526

As with an individual, a school system's personality is multidimensional. A few of the factors that describe the personality of a school include:

  • Pupil performance on scholarship examinations
  • School spending priorities
  • Accreditation of schools
  • Pupil/teacher ratios
  • Percentage of district families with school-age children
  • Per capita income of school system families
  • Home property values in the school system
  • Educational level of school system residents
  • Categorical expenditures per pupil
  • School system tax base
  • Number of students enrolled in the schools
  • Size of the entire school system
  • Awards won by the schools or the school system
  • Accessibility of special education programs

A good school system for one family may not be good for another. The same pertains to private schools. Our database of over 8,000 private schools has shown similar results. Quality education and family lifestyle preferences are inextricably intertwined.

If a family relies on published test scores (which usually are not comparable from school to school) and public reputation as the primary guide to finding the right school system or private school, it limits itself to a small number of potential choices and, in turn, may be disappointed because other needs are not met. Through an interactive database it is possible to find what the family really wants. Virtually every area, irrespective of what the public perception may be, has at least one school system or private school that will match up well with a family's lifestyle needs.

PROVIDING A WORK AND FAMILY SOLUTION FOR PARENTS OF SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN

No issue has received more attention from public policy makers and the news media than the condition of our elementary and secondary schools. Corporations have become actively involved in school business partnerships and other efforts to improve educational performance. Companies that want to assist employees by empowering them with information have begun to offer school-matching and school counseling services.

For companies such a service can have multiple benefits. Parents have fewer worries about their present school or finding new schools. Many parent-employees can better focus on their current job responsibilities or may be more amenable to moving to a new location at the company's request. Corporate support for parents of school-age children can result in higher employee job satisfaction.

When using a school-matching service, parents don't need to take as much time away from work to shop foor schools, which means higher productivity during the transition period. The service can also boost morale by focusing on family needs. Another benefit may not be as apparent. Accurate school information can reduce corporate residential real estate risk, because homes in areas with good schools appreciate and sell faster than homes in areas with poor schools.

Initially, school information was provided in the mid-1980s just to families who were relocating and wanted to be sure they bought their new home in an area with good schools. It wasn't long before recruiters found such data could be useful in persuading individuals to accept positions. The most recent development is the offering of such services to all employees whether they are relocating or not. Some employees may be moving within the same area and need help locating good schools, while others may just want to obtain information on the schools their children already attend. Currently, firms such as American Express, Hewlett-Packard and Johnson & Johnson are offering school information to all employees.

In addition to the data, school counseling services have proven helpful in assisting families through expert advice and development of strategies to make it possible for the child to get the most from school. Special areas of assistance include:

  • Knowing family and student rights
  • Interpreting report cards
  • Assisting with special education needs and questions
  • Providing help for parents of gifted youngsters
  • Coping with school bureaucracy
  • Communicating with teachers and school officials
  • Improving home study habits
  • Making the most of parenting at home
  • Enhancing communication between parents and teachers
  • Dealing with inappropriate behavior
  • Coping with lack of school success
  • Evaluating child custody school related issues
  • Accessing experienced educational leaders
  • Assisting with almost any school problem or concern

To use these programs, employees simply call a toll free number and talk with education experts. Large numbers of corporations are currently providing school information to their employees through their benefits program. The cost is small and the rewards are significant.

The Authors

William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D. and Steven M. Sundre, Ph.D. are principals in SchoolMatch, a data-based information and counseling service in Columbus, Ohio. Sundre and Bainbridge are both experienced educational administrators, earned doctorates from The Ohio State University and co-authored the SchoolMatch Guide to Public Schools. SchoolMatch maintains comprehensive information on public and private elementary and secondary schools and their communities. The unique service includes data on all (over 15,000) U.S. public school systems and over 8,000 U.S. accredited private schools worldwide. The firm's clients include over 350 major corporations.

Bainbridge has been a featured consultant on over 250 national and local television and radio programs including THE TODAY SHOW, CABLE NEWS NETWORK and NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO. He serves as an expert witness throughout the country in cases involving school data comparisons.

Sundre has served as director of a national educational accrediting agency and has consulted widely with major corporations and institutions on human resource training and development issues. He received the Thomas Holy award in educational research from The Ohio State University and is a former Kellogg Fellow.

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1 "Ann Landers, Call the Office," NEWSWEEK, July 29, 1991.

2 "The Harried, Hurried Family." Presentation by Bob Keeshan at the 4th Annual Conference on Work & Family, Bureau of National Affairs, Washington D.C., October 17, 1991.

3 "What do Parents Want?" THE AMERICAN SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL, May, 1990.

5 Numbers of school systems and private schools within a 60 mile commute of the central post office of each metropolitan area.