Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Economic Illogic of (Discretionary) Snow Days

Ah, the snow day, that much-beloved institution of childhood when you didn't have to go to school. I loved them - but then again, I grew up in a self-employed middle-class family in which my parents had the flexibility to take care of us kids when we had a snow day without too much disruption to their own lives or their business. As Ian Ayres points out, lots of Americans aren't so lucky when it comes to snow days, and he predicts a raft of bad outcomes from the flippancy with which lots of school districts declare snow days:
Holding other factors constant, ... if it snows one inch, you’re less likely to have a snow day if your school has already been canceled four times than if your school has only been canceled one prior time.  This factor is interesting to me because it might play a role in testing whether cancelling school for small amounts of snow is a worthwhile social policy.
I haven’t tested it yet but I think most snow days are ill-advised from the perspective of public health and safety.  I think that most children are exposed to more miles of driving on a snow day than they would be if they went to school.  In our house, we often go out to breakfast on snow days, and to the movies and to play dates.  There is something close to an iron law that the more passenger miles driven, the more injuries and deaths.  And when kids aren’t driving around, they are engaging in more dangerous outdoor activities.
From an economic perspective, snow days externalize risk.  Discretionary snow days don’t reduce risk (I hypothesize), they just take the risk off the school districts’ books and shift it to the private parents.  If I’m right, we should expect to see more injuries to kids the first time there is one inch of snow (and the probability of a snow day is high) than the 4th time in a winter when there is one inch of snow (and the probability of a snow day is lower).
But wait. It gets worse.  Discretionary snow days make families scramble for child care.  I’d bet this disproportionately hurts working families that are already hustling to make ends meet.  And unplanned child care is probabilistically higher risk.  In sharp contrast to my happy childhood memories of snow days, I’d predict that discretionary snow days expose some kids to risk of abuse, neglect and/or negligent care when they are dumped last-minute at their uncle Ned’s. (And don’t forget the miles driven on snowy roads to get them there.)
Of course, some snow days are warranted - for example, on account of the huge blizzard that forced Chicago schools to close for the first time in more than a decade. Coming from the South (and currently living in DC, which is sort of Southern in many ways), I remember and currently observe lots of snow days being declared that were questionable at best, and oftentimes blatantly unnecessary. How should we take into account the society-wide effects of declaring a snow day? Or should we not, and just stick with our current system, letting parents bear most of the risk and creating an even bigger burden for the most vulnerable members of our society?

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