Leila Day and World War II


By 1937, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was operating about 1,500 nursery schools caring for 40,000 children in the first public nurseries in the history of US; many were part of public school systems, lab schools, and community agencies. As the war went on, defense-related programs took over and most WPA programs ended.

Women replaced males in defense industries, and federal funding for day care was established by a 1942 amendment to the Community Facilities Act commonly known as the Lanham act, originally passed in 1941.

The agency entrusted with the governmental day care program was the Federal Works Agency (FWA), which succeeded the Depression-era WPA.

A power struggle between the Federal Security Administration (FSA), which stood with children’s advocates, and the FWA changed the public perception of day care.

The FSA, determined to prevent a nationwide chain of baby-parking centers, insisted that high quality child care was a necessity and also acted to erase the stigma of the dreary orphanages and poverty associated with child care.

“This is a war program, not a charity”

The FSA emphasized that high quality early childhood education was being provided, not just custodial care. If associated with public education, day care could be seen as a right of citizens, not as a gift to the poor.

The long-standing national ambivalence about child care was reflected in statements by Francis Perkins, the Secretary of Labor under President Roosevelt “I do not believe that further federal funds should be provided for actual operation of child care programs at this time,” and even by Lanham himself.

Throughout the war years, the school continued to be mindful of the importance of quality care and professional development both for staff and board members. Leila Day administrators had long understood that day nursery training required specific skills and knowledge; the directors and staff took advantage of as many conferences as possible.

Leila Day gained a reputation as a very high quality program and was used as a model for the WFA day care centers. An article in Life magazine featured Leila Day Nursery.

By the end of the war, $45 million had been spent on 1.5 million children.

In 1946 a basically all-male Congress ended Lanham Act funds; most of the 2,800 schools were closed with the assumption that women would return to working at home and men would take over the job market. However, between 1948 and 1966 the number of married women with children who were working outside the home increased from 10.8% to 24.2%.

Almost all of the new day care agencies that opened were privately sponsored.