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Opinion | School Is (Whisper It) a Form of Child Care

How did we ever let such a bifurcated system grow so established in the first place? The story begins, for a University of Pennsylvania education historian, Jonathan Zimmerman, when formal school was first established in this country. In the 1800s, school was transformed state by state from a few weeks of instruction by a teenage girl in a one-room house into a system of formal classrooms with grades and professional teachers. Educational reformers like Horace Mann and Henry Barnard insisted that children needed more formal schooling in order to be informed citizens upholding democracy.

But that same reform push also excluded the nation’s youngest children. When “school” still meant a one-room schoolhouse, working mothers were happy to send babies along with their siblings — which doesn’t mean that this was a good outcome. “They would park the babies in front of the fireplace and the babies would fall asleep and fall backward,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “Kids were injured.” Horace Mann insisted that babies ought to remain at home, to allow the other children to get a better shot at a real education.

“Nobody’s wrong here,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “Mom’s right that we need a place for the 6-month-old, and Horace Mann is right that kids don’t actually belong in the schoolhouse.”

But no one swooped in to help Mom get what she needed — even as a broad consensus formed across the country that all children above the age of 6 had a right to a publicly financed education. “Public support for education starting in grade 1 has never really been a question,” Mr. Zimmerman said, even if we’ve frequently — and vehemently — fought over the particulars of how it’s carried out. School was never about alleviating a burden for parents. It was, for a new republic, based on the idea that the country needed an educated population to make democracy function. It was a civic service.

Child care, on the other hand, was guided by an entirely different logic. “There’s a common thread that runs through the history of child care in this country,” said Chris Herbst, an Arizona State University associate professor who studies child care policy. “And that’s employment.”

Mothers have always worked outside the home. During Mann’s time, they were in mills and factories alongside men. Their presence in the workplace then was controversial, as it remains today. Convincing the public that there should be a service available to take care of their kids while they worked was “a really heavy lift,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

In fact, mothers didn’t get any help from the government until the government needed them to work. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration operated a network of child care centers aimed at helping unemployed mothers get jobs. Then, in the midst of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt built a network of centers across the country. By then, men were fighting abroad and the ranks of childless women were running thin. But without child care, the nation was subjected to an array of horror stories about what happened when mothers went to work, such as children locked in cars near factories or chained to trailer homes.

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