Superintendents suggest shorter school year as a budget fix

OLYMPIA — Facing another cut in state funding, school superintendents throughout Washington are pushing for a shorter school year even though they believe it could prove detrimental to students in the long run.

In letters and meetings, educators are telling lawmakers that lopping a week off the calendar spreads any reduction more fairly than other money-saving proposals such as reducing state aid to rural or property-poor districts.

School leaders also contend that after three years of diluting programs as state dollars declined, going to a shorter year may stem any further erosion.

“While we abhor losing precious instructional time, we face the most exceptional economic challenges since the Great Depression and exceptional times may require exceptional measures,” school superintendents from Snohomish, Island, Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan counties wrote to lawmakers in September. “We have reluctantly come to the realization that fewer state-required days of quality programs would be better than 180 days of gutted program.”

There’s been scattered talk about a shorter school year the past couple of legislative sessions. Most is from cash-strapped districts seeking an easier way of getting a waiver from a state law that requires at least 180 days of instruction.

Washington is not the first to consider this path. California, for example, dropped from 180 days to 175 days in 2009, then decided earlier this year to let financially challenged districts teach as few as 168 days. Other states, such as Oregon, allowed districts to go to a four-day school week. Students wind up with the same number of hours of instruction, but districts save money by closing campuses an additional day each week.

In Washington, the volume of conversation on a shorter school year is rising as the Nov. 28 special legislative session approaches. Superintendents view it as a less evil — maybe the least evil — option for public schools as lawmakers look for ways to fill a budget hole approaching $2 billion.

“I’m sure (the talk) is going to be much louder and louder, because the cuts are going deeper and deeper,” said state Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, a member of the House Education Appropriations &Oversight Committee. “It’s not something any of us want to do. We may have no other option.”

Gov. Chris Gregoire, in her outline of ideas for erasing the shortfall, listed $365 million in cuts to elementary and secondary education. She didn’t include a shorter school year, which could save $125 million, but did endorse slashing $150 million in levy equalization payments to property-poor school districts.

Superintendents oppose her approach because it doesn’t hit districts equally. Those in wealthier urban areas will be unscathed as they don’t receive a subsidy. A shorter school year, on the other hand, would affect each of the state’s 295 school districts.

“We’re probably more united as a superintendents’ group than we’ve ever been before: Don’t cut (levy equalization). That will absolutely devastate so many of the districts,” said Superintendent Marci Larsen of Mukilteo School District, which receives no aid in the program.

“No one wants to shorten the school year,” she continued. “However, when we start weighing the issue of quality versus quantity versus equity, at this point I would say cutting the school year is a way to most equitably make reductions.”

There are obstacles. Changing the law prescribing a 180-day school year is necessary. It also may run afoul of the state constitution’s requirement to ensure every student in Washington receives a ‘basic education.’

The constitution doesn’t define what is the minimum number of days for a basic education, but it’s generally believed that cutting five days could trigger a legal challenge to answer that question.

There is opposition from Gregoire, Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

“I believe that the number of days is basic education. I’m not going to support any cuts to students,” Dorn said. “A cut of school days to me would be detrimental to students.”

Mary Lindquist, president of the WEA, said public schools cannot absorb any more cuts in any fashion without undermining the quality of education provided to students.

“I understand people are looking at this as a serious option,” she said. “We just can’t cut any more. We have absorbed every cut we can possibly absorb.”

Superintendents don’t disagree but they don’t see any way public schools can escape the special session without suffering further cuts. Pushing a shorter school year may serve to catalyze public support for passing local levies or a statewide revenue package.

“Putting those days on the table tells people this is real,” Dorn said. “Children’s education is at stake, and with this people in every part of the state would see the effects.”

Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, who serves on the education appropriations committee and opposes the proposal, said: “If it’s about scaring people, maybe the idea is a good one.”

Research shows giving students less instructional time is a bad idea and will manifest itself in lower achievement later on, said the president of a national group that pushes for expanding instruction time.

“If Washington state wants to remain economically competitive, it is making the absolute wrong decision to cut school time,” said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning in Massachusetts. “Superintendents are being shortsighted.”

Superintendent Gary Cohn of Everett School District said educators “are between a rock and a hard place. Nobody likes the options being presented to us. Nobody.

“No one wants less instructional time. I’ve argued for and worked to increase instructional time for kids,” he said. “We can’t keep thinning the soup and expect kids to receive enough nourishment.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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