Can Public Schools Pave the Way for Paid Family Leave?

It’s hard to have a conversation about maternity or paternity leave and not compare the US with Europe, and for good reason as I described in a recent TEDx talk. One geography has some of the best paid leave policies and one has nothing at all. Yet, in the absence of a national paid leave policy, we see a growing number of US-based companies, local governments and even public schools taking it upon themselves to prioritize the issue and create a culture that values the balance of life and work without forcing their employees to choose one or the other.

Public Schools Offer Paid Leave

In March of 2016, IDEA Public Schools, a network of tuition-free Pre-K to 12th grade public schools serving more than 30,000 students in 51 schools across Texas, announced they were going to offer eight weeks of paid family leave to all eligible employees. At the time, they were one of the only public schools to offer paid leave through a family leave policy vs. disability policy or PTO bank. This distinction is important as it covers both maternity and paternity and doesn’t require teachers to exhaust their sick days to care and bond with their new born child.

Only a few months later, in August of 2016, the Palm Springs Unified School District created a paid maternity leave policy offering up to six weeks of paid leave. Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York City has proposed a policy for teachers and all unionized city workers offering 6 weeks of 100% paid maternity, paternity, adoptive, and foster.

While it is great to see private corporations supporting paid family leave policies, we know change is coming when we see public entities recognize the business case for a paid family leave policy and are willing to jump through the complex bureaucratic hurdles to put such a policy in place.

Impetus for Change

What was the impetus for change? As the number of successfully implemented paid leave policies increases, the amount of data available to support such policies also increases. The benefits of having a paid leave policy in place are more apparent than ever. Talent retention, recruitment and overall employee well-being are clear cost savings for employers. Beyond the cost savings of not having to recruit, hire, and train new talent. Having a generous paid leave policy means you want the best talent and want to retain the best talent. In the US, 43 percent of highly skilled women with children leave their careers or off ramp for a period of time. [1]This significant loss of talent is felt in the public school sector as well and change needs to be made in order to ensure our public schools recruit and retain the best.

IDEA Founder and CEO Tom Torkelson said “The global context is what it is, unfortunately, but at IDEA Public Schools, we’re doing what we can within our universe of control for our employees. We have made a commitment to our employees to do what we can to ensure they are the healthiest, happiest, best trained, most supported employees in the country, and this is just an additional way we are living up to this commitment.”[2]

The Nation’s Homework

Family leave policy is not a panacea and fixing the working families issue is more than just paid leave policy. While that is an important step, there is more to be done. The conversation needs to be the availability of choices for family leave (not just maternity leave), access to affordable quality childcare, and established return to work programs. The public school sector has taken an important step to make paid family leave a norm beyond the tech industry and we are better for it.