By Ben Velderman
OLYMPIA, Washington – In Washington state, the 180-day school year is in danger of becoming as obsolete as daily newspapers, rotary phones and powdered wigs.
But unlike those relics of bygone eras, the 180-day school year isn’t being replaced by something better and more efficient.
Instead, a growing number of Washington school districts are turning to an abbreviated school year that leaves students with fewer days of instruction and teachers with lighter workloads. The days are being lopped off the calendar to compensate teachers for budget-driven salary cuts.
According to Chris Ingalls’ stunning exposé for King 5 News, “40 percent of Washington’s 295 school districts have peeled days off their school calendars.”
The number of days subtracted from the school year – known as “waiver days” – varies by district, but three to seven fewer instructional days for students seems typical.
King 5 News also reports that many school districts are “scheduling shorter school days by the dozens.”
Those early student dismissal days allow teachers to receive professional development training and conduct parent-teacher conferences during their normal work hours.
Traditionally, teachers performed those “extra” professional duties after-hours or on special work days. But defenders of the Education Establishment say that was before Washington state lawmakers cut funding for teachers’ professional development training.
Without that aid, they say schools can’t afford to pay teachers for after-hours activities, and that carving time out of students’ schedule is the only viable option.
Anybody who believes schools exist to serve students – not the adult employees – would strongly disagree.
But even critics admit there is nothing illegal about Washington school leaders shortchanging students in order to pacify their adult employees. The state board of education signs off on all waiver days, often with surprising ease.
Nor is there anything illegal about school officials knocking a few hours off a few dozen school days. State law doesn’t define how long an official school day must be; it only requires that schools provide students with 1,000 hours of instruction every academic year. As long as schools meet that minimum, they are in compliance with the law.
Schools don’t necessarily use both waiver days and undersized school days. But enough of them do that many parents are openly wondering what’s happening to the schools.
Rachel Teodoro likely spoke for many parents when she told King 5 News that partial school days result in little or no learning for her children.
“I just feel like (my kids) are getting short-changed by the lack of time they’re having in the classroom,” Teodoro told King 5 News.
Less pay, less work?
Washington state’s teacher union leaders feel perfectly justified in demanding that school leaders reduce their members’ workload.
Back in 2011, state lawmakers cut teacher pay by 1.9 percent. The Evergreen State is unique in that teacher salaries are set by the state, not the local school district.
The unions’ position is that if teachers are getting less pay, they should do less work.
The Tacoma Education Association was very upfront about this when it asked Tacoma school officials to “convert four full student days to four half days” to offset the wage cut.
That “less pay, less work” position would probably sound reasonable to many Americans.
But that argument doesn’t hold water with Jami Lund, an education analyst for the Freedom Foundation.
Lund tells EAGnews that most Washington teacher unions’ have “supplemental” contracts with their school district. Supplemental contracts are used by district and union leaders as a way of circumventing the state’s salary cap for teachers.
Lund calls them “shadow salary schedules” and says they are paid through local tax levies.
“This is happening on a growing basis throughout the state,” he adds.
A budget document from Washington’s Bellevue School District 405 reveals how the tricky process works.
“While we legally cannot pay more for the same number of days or hours of work, we can extend contracts and pay for work outside of the regular work day,” the document reads. “Metropolitan districts around us all offer supplemental contracts ranging from a low of $5,000 to over $10,000. This must come from our local levy budget.”
Simply put, most Washington teachers are already being paid to put in extra time outside of the normal, 180-day school year – time that could be used for parent-teacher conferences and professional training. For districts to cram those duties into time that rightfully belongs to students should strike many Washington parents and taxpayers as underhanded – regardless of the 1.9 percent wage cut.
It demonstrates, once again, how members of the Education Establishment are more concerned about protecting the integrity of the adults’ pay schedules than the students’ educational experience.
It’s bad, it’s nationwide
The Evergreen State’s willingness to shortchange its students is distasteful, but it’s not unique.
It’s estimated that half of California’s nearly 1,000 school districts use a school calendar that’s less than 180 days, according to mLive.com.
The almost-bankrupt San Diego school district got its teachers union to agree to a pay cut in early 2010, but only in exchange for five fewer school days. The district was prepared to lop another 10 days off its calendar until voters approved a massive new tax hike last November.
In West Virginia, very few districts meet the minimum 180 days of student instruction.
Some districts have taken the extraordinary step of holding class only four days a week. A 2011 Washington Post survey found nearly 300 districts nationwide are using that schedule.
Rural districts in western states have long used a four-day week because of transportation issues, the Washington Post notes.
But lately, larger, urban districts are considering a truncated schedule because of budget constraints.
“Savings are gained in electricity, food and transportation, as well as the wages for cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other non-salaried employees,” the Post reports.
Not enough formal research has been done to determine how less class time affects students. But University of Maryland Professor Dave Marcotte offered this prediction to King 5 news: “Anytime you reduce the amount of time kids spend in school, test scores are going to go down. And the amount they go down is directly a function of how much time is lost.”
The shrinking school trend appears to be unique to union-controlled public schools.
Lund notes that successful charter schools are lengthening their school days and years because they’re focused solely on helping kids learn. If the alternative public schools don’t produce good academic results, they’ll lose their charter and be put out of business.
That’s the free market at work, Lund says.
And the “less money, less work” philosophy of public schools?
“That may be the hallmark of monopolies,” he says.