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Published: Wednesday, November 23, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Suggestion to cut length of school year gaining grudging support

Cutting four days of instruction might save the state $99 million, but it could also hurt students.

It's an idea that's gaining traction: shortening the 180-day school year to save the state money.
Superintendents in Snohomish, Island and Skagit counties first pushed the idea of cutting the school year by five days. Gov. Chris Gregoire initially balked, but this week changed her mind and now supports reducing the school year by four days. Still, she wants to avoid that and other cuts by increasing the sales tax statewide by a half-cent.
Schools could save money on shorter school years by keeping buildings open fewer hours, paying less for transportation and possibly paying teachers less. Gregoire estimates that shortening the school year could save the state $99 million, a portion of the $500 million she expects to cut from education.
But how can be saved depends much on the details and what is decided in the Legislature's month-long special session that begins Monday, said Jeffrey Moore, executive director of finance and operations for the Everett School District.
"To specifically identify what the impact of the state cuts are is really difficult, considering all the variables," Moore said.
Research shows that giving students less instructional time results in lower achievement later on, said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning in Massachusetts.
"For teachers across the entire state of Washington to lose school time is going to hurt students," she said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn opposes the idea of any cuts to the length of the school year. And he doesn't want any of the other cuts as well.
"The cuts being proposed would be catastrophic to basic education, and amply funding basic education is the state's paramount duty," he said in a statement. "Our school year is already too short when compared to our economic competitors."
The 180-day school year has been a law since at least 1977, said Nathan Olson, Dorn's spokesman. Through the Basic Education Act, the state became responsible for funding basic education.
The act specified 180 days and at least 1,000 hours of instructional time in a school year. The 180-day requirement can be waived through an official process by the State Board of Education, Olson added.
If the Legislature decides to shorten the school year by four days, it will be important that students still receive 1,000 hours of instruction, said Sheila Fox, a board member of the Washington State Board of Education and assistant dean at Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University in Bellingham. If the number of days is reduced, she believes teachers will be responsible for implementing new ways to make class time more effective.
"Sometimes we get so focused on in-seat instruction, and some more active … ways of learning may be more efficient," she said. "There are some things that happen during the school day that aren't focused on standards and teaching to them directly."
Meanwhile, districts are looking at what fewer days would mean. The Edmonds School District could end up having to renegotiate contracts with teachers unions if the school year is shortened, said DJ Jakala, a district spokeswoman.
"For example, we work in a three-year cycle, so if this were to occur, there would be the possibility of some bargaining involved," Jakala said. "We certainly are dependent on paying individuals under certain contracted agreements for a certain number of days."
The Arlington School District couldn't say how much it would save shutting down its school buildings for four days. That's because the cost of heating, lighting and utilities varies every week.
Food service revenue would be reduced approximately $4,000 a day the school year is shortened while the cost of instructional materials, furniture, software licenses, contracts with outside vendors and the maintenance of buildings would all be expected to stay constant.
Justin Fox-Bailey, a Snohomish teacher and president of the Snohomish Education Association, said he believes a shorter school year and cutting levy equalization payments to school districts are bad options for students and school districts.
"There are no good things left to cut that are being proposed," he said.
The state already shortened the year for teachers by cutting learning improvement days -- where students aren't in class, but teachers work to become better professionals, Fox-Bailey added.
One thing that isn't being looked at for cuts is state-mandated testing, and that should be part of the discussion, he said.
"If they were to reduce the year by four days and reduce the state-imposed testing we would get every single one of those days back," Fox-Bailey said.
Teachers spend much of their time preparing kids for state tests. That time could still be spent on subjects in the tests -- such as writing and math -- but also on subjects that aren't tested -- including social studies, music and art.
"If everything is on the table, why is there no talk about testing?" Fox-Bailey said.
Still, superintendents around the county support cutting back the number of days in the school year.
"We would rather have a few less days to provide high-quality experiences than continue to dilute what we are able to offer," Arlington superintendent Kristine McDuffy said. "There are no easy answers. It's difficult to try to defend 'the least worst option.' "
Herald Writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; adaybert@heraldnet.com.

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