Why Don't We Have Family Leave Policies for High School Students?

04/17/2015 01:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

Nationally there has been a significant recent discussion about how and whether women (and to some degree men) can "have it all" -- pursue their careers while still having the family and home life they want. Of equal (or more) importance to the discussion being had by the female leaders of our businesses and government, is the question of how women who work the kind of hourly or shift-based jobs where there is no telecommuting, no flexible schedules, and no paid sick leave can juggle both their need to work and their need to parent. And yet surprisingly absent from the national discourse is an even more important and more basic concern: how can high school student-parents complete their high school educations so they have employment opportunities and a way to support their families while simultaneously parenting young children?

Teen pregnancy is a social issue that is constantly being quantified, debated, and held up as a marker of a given society's advancement. If it is such a marker, the United States is doing pretty dismally. We lag far behind most European countries in our teen birth rates -- according to the U.N., in 2012 the teen birth rate for the United States was 31 births per 1000 women age 15-19 (a 20-year low), putting us at one birth per 1000 women more than Kazakhstan and Burundi and just lower than Iran and India. Study after study shows that teen parenthood is a significant contributor to high school dropout rates; fewer than half of girls who have a child before age 18 earn a high school diploma by age 22. Those teen parents who are able to finish high school have significantly better outcomes for themselves and their children than those that drop out. That being the case, why do we offer no legal protection for teens based on their status as parents?

Title IX, the federal law guaranteeing equal treatment between the sexes in education, protects the rights of pregnant students to an extent. Title IX regulations state that schools "shall not discriminate against any student, or exclude any student from its education program or activity, including any class or extracurricular activity, on the basis of such student's pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery therefrom, unless the student requests voluntarily to participate in a separate portion of the program or activity of the recipient." They further require that pregnant students be excused from school for absences due to pregnancy or childbirth. Despite the clear requirements of the federal law, many schools still try to push out pregnant students, or fail to provide excused absences or make-up work for school missed due to doctors' appointments, pregnancy-related medical issues, and childbirth. Even if schools properly provided the protections guaranteed by Title IX, once a student has recovered from childbirth, Title IX no longer protects her status as a mother, nor does Title IX contemplate the needs of young fathers.

In the employment context, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides a base level of protection for many employees who need to take time (up to 12 weeks in a year) to care for a family member, including those who need maternity or paternity leave after the birth of a child. This time can generally be used as the employee needs -- all at once, or in smaller increments (as little as a day at a time) to care for his or her own medical needs, or the needs of dependents and other family members. Most states also have their own family and medical leave laws that may mirror the FMLA or provide greater coverage, and states are passing laws requiring paid sick leave for employees.

None of these legal protections have counterparts in the school context. Schools may allow students a certain number of unexcused absences, and may excuse absences due to a student's own illnesses, but most make no allowance for student parents' needs to care for their children. Student-parents are therefore in the position of being punished by their schools, up to and including by expulsion or disenrollment, if they have to miss school to care for sick children, arrange child care, or take a child to the doctor. Yet as of today, only one state has passed legislation providing protection for parenting high school students.

In 2013 New Mexico passed a law allowing students up to 10 days' absence after the birth of a baby and an additional four days for a child's illness or medical appointments. While ten days hardly allows for the mother's physical recovery and adjustment to parenting (and provides nothing to new fathers), it recognizes that teen parents will need to be absent to care for their children. Prior to the passage of the law, students who had to be absent to care for sick children were told by their school administrations they would be disenrolled for missing school because the problem was the baby's not the student's.

In 2013, the Pregnant and Parenting Students' Access to Education Act was introduced in the federal House and Senate. The bill was reintroduced in 2015 and is currently in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. The law would provide grants to the states to create plans for pregnant and parenting students, and would require grantees to revise school policies to remove barriers to education for pregnant and parenting teens. The majority of these grants would be distributed to local educational agencies that would be required to spend the funds providing academic support to pregnant and parenting students, assistance in finding child care for student's children, and transportation, and education of students and professional development of staff regarding expectant and parenting students' rights. Most importantly, the educational agencies receiving the grant money would be required to revise school attendance policies to allow students to be excused for attendance at pregnancy-related medical appointments (including expectant fathers) and attending to parenting responsibilities including arranging child care and caring for sick children. Grantees would be permitted to use the grants for other purposes as well, including providing childcare for parenting students.

Grants under the proposed federal law would provide a sea change in how schools deal with expecting and parenting children. Not only would this law begin to remove overt barriers to parenting students' educational prospects, but it requires grantees to provide necessary support services to help students actually make the prospect of parenting and attending high school work on a practical level.

Given how much is known about the ways in which becoming a parent hinders teens' ability to finish high school, and given what a hot-button social topic teen pregnancy has been for decades, it's shocking that so little action has been taken to provide even basic education protections for parenting teens. The New Mexico law is a step in the right direction; that more states have not stepped in to provide for the needs of their parenting high school students is incredibly disappointing. The pending federal legislation offers some hope that this issue may be gaining the attention it deserves, and if it passes it would go a long way towards helping student parents obtain their high school diplomas. We adults are mired in a conversation about how to balance work and family life; we owe it to students parents to ensure that they can obtain a basic education so that they have the opportunity to find work and join us in that conversation.