Balancing a teaching career and family life can be a tough equation for many American educators, especially in a nation without a national paid leave policy.
A recent study by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit organization dedicated to issues of teacher quality, found that only 18% of the nation’s largest school districts provide paid parental leave for educators giving birth. Some of the districts surveyed offer only a few days of leave, making family planning and childcare challenging for teachers.
Katie McNelly, an elementary school teacher with 12 years of experience, found herself grappling with financial worries when she decided to have children.
“How am I going to afford to go on leave?” McNelly said she found herself asking.
Currently, only nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia guarantee some form of paid parental leave for public school teachers. Virginia, where McNelly teaches, is among the states that do not provide such support.
“Historically, teachers have always been told that if you want to have a baby, you just have to time it to have your baby over summer vacation. For anyone who has ever had to deal with infertility issues or pregnancy loss, I can’t even imagine how upsetting that is to hear,” McNelly said.
McNelly’s husband James stepped in by gifting her six weeks of paid sick leave that he had accumulated as a fellow teacher. However, this left them with only a few weeks of leave when McNelly had her second child 13 months later.
She said she has “no idea” what she would have done if her husband wasn’t a teacher in the same school system.
McNelly returned to work just four weeks after her son Connell was born last spring. When asked if she thought the lack of paid leave discouraged women from becoming teachers, McNelly said it was actually stopping young teachers from starting families.
Educators can qualify for 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, but with an average salary of around $66,000 a year, according to the National Center of Education Statistics, many teachers can’t afford to go unpaid for an extended period.
Casey Montigney, a Delaware teacher, said she saved up all of her sick time for seven years and it was “all gone” in the first six weeks of being off to have her first son, Emerson. She took a portion of her leave without receiving any pay.
Delaware passed a law granting some public school teachers parental leave in 2018, which was after Montigney had her first child, but before her second pregnancy. Montigney said that without parental leave, she might have considered leaving her teaching career.
“Educators are in the business of children and families. So to have someone not care about your own family, it makes you wonder: Should I even be working here?” she said.
One of the main arguments against implementing paid parental leave for teachers is the cost. California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed such legislation in 2019, amid concerns that it could cost between $43 million and $163 million annually.
Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said that when paid parental leave is not offered, people leave the workforce at higher rates. Each time a teacher leaves, it can cost a school district an estimated $9,000.
“I say you can’t afford not to give teachers paid parental leave,” Peske said.
President Biden has proposed 12 weeks of paid family leave for all workers, a move aimed at bringing the United States in line with the rest of the world. The bill is currently stalled in Congress.