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Opinion | Our Schools Can’t Solve the Problems of Our Rigid Workweek

Other proposals have approached the problem in a slightly different way, like the bill from Representative Bobby Scott, Democrat of Virginia, and Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington (and others). It makes an important differentiation between schools and child care centers. Indeed, the two have different roles, and should not be treated as equivalent.

But we must consider the toll inflexible work hours take on the American family — because Ms. Harris’s proposal is not primarily about education. It’s about work. Her bill offers economic statistics on the cost of misalignment (for instance, “Misaligned school schedules cost the United States economy $55,000,000,000 in lost productivity annually”). But it is hard to look at these statistics and see them as problems to fix with education policy.

Children offer long-term benefits to both society and the economy, but present a lot of short-term, immediate costs for both parents and companies. It is therefore vital that politicians like Ms. Harris reorient their view of economic goods to transcend work productivity and to include human dignity, family and community.

In 2017, Americans worked a collective 270 billion hours, or 1,739 hours per worker. We work longer hours than the average worker in any peer European nation. But many of our workers are not paid for overtime, do not have the work-hour flexibility they need and have little or no paid family leave.

Most Americans are forced to structure their lives around rigid jobs that make it difficult to prioritize children’s needs. Wealthy parents fill the gap with nannies and paid help, while lower-income parents may have access to a grandparent or other family member. Many other parents have to drop out of the work force or leave children unattended. It’s important to note that fathers and mothers should have the choice to stay at home full time with their children if they want to, and that we should appreciate the economic and social value of that decision. But it’s also true that many parents make this choice out of necessity, and feel a financial strain as a result.

Ms. Harris argues that her proposal would serve to “modernize the school schedule,” but it’s chained to work norms that many Americans already detest. Irregular shift and on-call work often put an excessive strain on family life. Overwork leads to stress and poor health, yet does not actually increase productivity. In contrast, companies that have implemented even small changes in favor of flexibility and choice — the ability to work remotely, or to trade, drop, or add shifts — have enjoyed tangible benefits.

When Microsoft Japan tested a four-day workweek, productivity jumped 40 percent. Greater flexibility and family-friendly policies are important to workers’ job satisfaction; half of American workers say they would switch jobs if it gave them greater schedule flexibility and freedom.

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