State budgets impact school year length

by Olivia Leonard | August 29, 2011

School Buses- FacebookAs students across the nation sharpen their pencils and pack their backpacks for upcoming school year, many teachers and administrators are preparing for that academic year to be shortened as a result of the widespread state budget shortfall crisis. Academic services continue to end up on the chopping block as states scramble to cut their budgets, leaving many schools unable to keep their doors open with the limited resources remaining to them.

California has a history of cutting school days when the budget gets tight, with 30% of the state's schools down to a 175-day academic year even before this year's cuts. Back in May, California governor Jerry Brown warned the state-at-large of the possible elimination of an entire month of school--20 days of class time--in order to save the struggling state the $1 billion-per-week cost of running the schools. After California experienced a $539 million budget shortfall this July, the first month of their fiscal year under the new budget, state schools are nervously watching for the $2 billion shortfall mark that triggers the first wave of school day cuts. Though both lawmakers and teachers unions will doubtlessly resist such severe reduction in student class time, California is running out of options.

The length of the academic year varies by school district, some of which may shorten the year by up to 20 days.  The Mt. Diablo School District, for example, is in discussion with their teachers union over a contract that proposes cutting seven days out of the upcoming school year through furloughs, as well as freezing teachers pay and cutting benefits in an attempt to conserve school resources. San Jose East Side Union High School District has already added nine furlough days to their school year, with teachers and administrators fearing that further budget cuts will force the district schools to close before teachers can get through enough material to prepare students for their finals and advanced placement tests. The San Diego Unified School District saw 767 teachers laid off in May and eliminated bus services for more than 4,000 students when it laid off a quarter of its bus drivers this year; the instability resulting from these cuts has left administrators unsure of how many students will even be enrolling in the upcoming academic year, making funding predictions even more dubious.

In Michigan's Jackson County, schools have been open for shorter academic years since the 2003-04 school year, with a minimum requirement of only 165 days of classes per year. Although parents and critics complain that students are being scholastically shortchanged, school administrators doubt that an increase of class days is likely to come anytime in light of Michigan's continued financial struggle.

Many are concerned about the consequences that could result from fewer days in the classroom, with California's State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson mentioning the edge that global competitors such as China and Japan have over the US, with their school years consisting of 200 to 220 days of classroom time. Concerns on the part of teachers, parents, and critics are supported by the most recent study by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance, "Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?" The study, which found that U.S. students fall behind 16 countries in reading proficiency and a shocking 31 countries in math proficiency, has increased the concerns felt by parents and teachers in districts that face shorter academic years.

In an interesting contrast to their state's public school system, Los Angeles Catholic schools will be adding 20 days to their academic year, giving campuses run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles one of the longest school years in the nation. When announcing the extension, Cardinal Roger Mahony also made reference to U.S. global competition as the impetus for the longer year. The 210 schools in the archdiocese's charge run on a tuition base adjusted for the income of enrolled families. Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the National Center on Time and Learning, noted that the extended year will "be an important experiment to watch"--an experiment made even more potent by the days cut from the school districts surrounding it.

Meanwhile, other states are weighing other methods of cutting costs through schedule adjustments, with several school districts in South Dakota, Georgia, and Colorado adopting a four-day academic week to deal with budget troubles.  In fact, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 120 school districts in 21 states currently operate on a four-day week.  For small, remote school districts, instituting a four-day school week may provide a savings by reducing transportation, heating, and staff costs.  Proponents also cite increased attendance as a reason to implement a four-day schedule.  Opponents, however, question whether the schedule means students will retain less and question the childcare problems the schedule can cause for families.  The lack of comprehensive studies on the four-day week indicates that the debate will continue on the issue.

In Georgia, the Peach County School District has followed a Tuesday through Friday week since 2010, a cost-cutting measure also adopted by Colorado's Pueblo County School District 70 when that district was faced with a $5.8 million budget shortfall. Schools in the Irene-Wakonda School District in South Dakota will follow the practice of many other South Dakota schools this upcoming academic year, opening their doors Monday through Thursday and adding an additional 30 minutes to each school day in an attempt to guarantee sufficient class time for their students. More than a quarter of students in the state will be in class only four days a week this year, with parents and teachers anxiously waiting to see whether the different schedule impacts academic results.

Whether the length of time in the classroom or the quality of education received during the provided time is the determinant factor in academic excellence is highly debated and remains to be seen. One thing is sure: as more states continue to run up their spending and suffer budget shortfalls, more uncertain experiments will be conducted with the education of America's children.

Filed Under : K-12 Education