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Housekeeping items: Updates on the four-day school week

We interrupt the flow of news and analysis to bring you a few quick education-world housekeeping items.

First, from the Learning Curve mail bag, comes an item from the fine folks who operate North Branch Area Public Schools, who’ve requested a little record-straightening. In June, I reported on a study by the Education Commission of the States, a sort of intergovernmental brain trust located in Colorado, which found the savings created by four-day school weeks were negligible.

North Branch was mentioned in the study (PDF), and in my story. ECS reported the district expected to save 0.4 percent of its overall budget, or $123,000, by making the move. I quoted the figure, and promptly received a polite complaint wondering where I got the number, given that North Branch hadn’t concluded its first four-day school year and thus had no idea what had actually been saved.

Now they know. Writes district Community Relations Coordinator Pat Tepoorten: “I can report to you now that the district saved $267,886 by implementing the four-day week. Roughly $66,000 of that was used to implement an every-day half-day kindergarten model, for a net savings of $201,000.”

I made a couple of follow-up calls on this. The ECS senior policy analyst who did the study, Michael Griffiths, confirmed his research was based on district estimates. Because the higher savings amount to 0.7 percent of the district’s budget, North Branch’s new numbers don’t change his basic opinion.

Nor do they change the initial, knee-jerk reaction of the parental portion of my brain, which is pretty sure that, at $35 to $40 per day, all the resulting child care bills accrued by area parents add up to more than $200,000. North Branch did choose Monday as its bye day because it is more often a holiday, but still — that whole “when is a fee really a tax?” line of questioning would seem worth pursuing.

Denizens of North Branch, I bequeath this argument to you for possible use in next fall’s levy campaign: Surely the $10 a month you’re considering assessing the average homeowner looks darn cheap by comparison.

To judge by the district’s website and from reporting by two newspapers that cover North Branch, the four-day week is the topic of ongoing conversation. Administrators said some parents and kids say they enjoy the increased time at home. Families were surveyed in May; the results have yet to be reported.

At least one school board member is concerned that some who aren’t may be voting with their feet and enrolling their kids in neighboring districts. The state Department of Education hasn’t yet posted statistics about the 2010-2011 school year — word is that pesky shutdown has everyone scrambling to catch up — but in 2009-2010 the number of North Branch kids who left the 3,500-student district under open enrollment was 306, while 171 transferred in.

In a loop-closing mood, I also called the state Department of Education to ask after a paragraph in the education omnibus bill passed last month that said, in essence, no four-day school weeks unless specifically approved by Minnesota’s commission of education. I was perplexed by the provision at the time because I believed that was already state law on the topic.

The skinny: For a number of years, Minnesota law has forbidden school districts from shortening the school year. Some districts have had longer years, some shorter, but none could pare back. (This is known among policy wonks as a “maintenance of effort” rule.)

But between the four-day weeks now in place in some districts, the call for extended days and years in struggling schools and the ever-explosive debate over whether it is simply un- Minnesotan to start school before Labor Day (which I personally have always assumed was code for “until the State Fair is over”), this was the year to even things out.

Because the length of a day varies with the age of the pupil, the new law says school will be in session a certain minimum number of hours per year, which will, if I understand it right, add up to the equivalent of 170 days.

The four-day admonition was added to the bill to make crystal clear that while districts mostly are still in charge of how those hours are spread out, permission is needed if the scheme involves closing down for a fifth day.

And as always, districts are free to do more with less. Cue video of an administrator in a dissociative state crawling into a little tent crafted from their mimeographed budget and rocking back and forth …

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/12/2011 - 10:42 am.

    I agree – 0.7% is a savings, but not a significant one, especially when the additional child care costs for many families are factored in.

    While the countries that beat our brains out in international academic competitions virtually all have more and longer school days, adopting a shorter school week for budgetary reasons, even if the savings were genuine and substantial, strikes me as self-defeating.

    Equally self-defeating – and I enjoy the Minnesota State Fair as much as anyone – is the continued practice, in this country and state, of bringing formal education to a complete halt for 10 to 12 consecutive weeks every year. Summer vacation, as practiced here, was rendered irrelevant by the Industrial Revolution, and is a genuine anachronism in the 21st century, when more than 90 percent of our population lives in areas that are “urban” by any realistic standard, and fewer than 3 percent of our population are practicing farmers, who might actually need some additional labor to plow, plant and harvest their crops.

    Everyone else who’s of appropriate age should be in school year-round.

    And by the way, if the administrative office space of a school is air-conditioned, the classroom space should be, as well.

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