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Schools Nationwide Cutting Down to 4 Days a Week, Because Wealthy Refuse to Pay Fair Share

The GOP's anti-tax attitude and budget cuts mean some states are closing schools on Fridays, leaving parents, workers and students in the lurch.
 
 
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I doubt there's any student in the world who would object to having Fridays off. But when it comes to policy, the increasing number of American schools moving to a four-day week is not necessarily news to jump for joy about. In fact, it's potentially devastating for parents, school workers and students all left in the lurch by budget cuts. And it's happening more and more, as state and local budgets shrink to tiny levels and raising taxes on the wealthy is somehow considered verboten.

This anti-school thinking is evidenced by the fact that a leading right-wing businessman wrote an op-ed yesterday in which he questioned his taxes going toward the existence of a Department of Education. "Do we really need an energy department or an education department at all?" theAmerican Enterprise Institute's Harvey Golub wrote in the Wall Street Journal, while arguing, contra Warren Buffet, that taxes for the ultra-rich not be raised.

We need more revenue for education, Harvey. Just ask the growing group of parents who are stuck with their young school-age children on Mondays or Fridays because the schools can't even afford to open that day.

The Associated Press reports that the Irene-Wakonda School District in South Dakota is the latest to move to the four-day week, bringing the state close to having one-fourth of its districts on the reduced schedule.

“It got down to monetary reasons more than anything else,’’ Superintendent Larry Johnke said. The $50,000 savings will preserve a vocational education program that otherwise would have been scrapped.

The four-day school week is an increasingly visible example of the impact of state budget problems on rural education. This fall, fully one-fourth of South Dakota’s districts will have moved to some form of the abbreviated schedule. Only Colorado and Wyoming have a larger proportion of schools using a shortened week. According to one study, more than 120 school districts in 20 states, most in the west, now use four-day weeks.

The AP notes that while district officials are quick to tout the fact that there's no recorded difference in standardized testing and so on for the schools with the four-day schedule, "parents aren't convinced." 

Last year, the Wall Street Journal ran a big feature on the movement toward shorter school weeks as well, including a map showing at least 16 states where the policy is allowed, including Colorado, Wyoming, Georgia and South Dakota. The piece's author found that no conclusive data could be pinpointed explaining where test scores go when Friday classes disappear.

But education advocates expressed grave concern, saying teachers had to fight to keep students focused during the newly longer days, and Randi Weingarten of the AFT noted that implementing reforms and new ideas was more difficult with the four-day week.

To be fair to energetic local educators, there are some advantages in a reduced-day schedule, particularly for older students in rural areas with long commutes, according to this 2010 piece in USA Today and this 2008 Time Magazine piece on the growing trend in rural districts from Maine to New York to Georgia to the Southwest, and even Hawaii. The practice can allow teachers more time to prepare and students more time to rest. Going to doctors' appointments, helping out around the family farm, and other reasons to skip school may lessen in frequency. And the remaining school days will by necessity be longer and involve more tutoring and activities, which could motivate students.

But it certainly isn't a cure-all for budget woes. Educators from other districts where the experiment has been tried have also said it was hard to keep up the pace of the curriculum and some have eventually abandoned the schedule, saying it wasn't worth the money "saved."

Many districts that have the shortened schedule say they've seen students who are less tired and more focused, which has helped raise test scores and attendance. But others say that not only did they not save a substantial amount of money by being off an extra day, they also saw students struggle because they weren't in class enough and didn't have enough contact with teachers.

The best conclusion that could be drawn from the small amount of research and reporting that's been done on the matter is this: pedagogically, there's no formula and each school and population will see different results from the shortened week. So the real question remains, why are schools even pushed to make this choice?

Regardless of what works academically for each school, the idea that many are being forced to shut down because of budget constraints is disturbing to say the least--and that's indeed the case for many of these schools, as the WSJ article notes:

Some schools, meanwhile, say they are turning to the four-day schedule as a last resort. In North Branch, Minn., school Superintendent Deb Henton said her 3,500-student district, facing a $1.3 million deficit, is simply out of options. 
"We've repeatedly asked our residents to pay higher taxes, cut some of our staff, and we may even close one of our schools," she said. "What else can you really do?" Despite a "lot of opposition" from parents, she said, the district is set to adopt a four-day week for next school year.

Indeed, one of the groups hardest hit is working parents, who have to scramble for childcare on the extra day, an extra-tough task during the recession when many may need the time to work or look for work.

Another group hit hard? Bus drivers, cafeteria workers, maintenance staff and others whose smaller work-weeks may in fact be the main reason districts "save" money on the four-day week: they're gaining extra pockets in their budgets by cutting these staff members salaries by up to a fifth. This is hardly a rejuvenating measure, and combined with the hit to parents this loss of employment could certainly put a dent in small communities' financial well-being.

And presumably, for the day off to actually help schools academically, the facilities would still be open on the fifth day. If bus drivers and other staffers aren't around that fifth day because of budget cuts, then how can students get to school for extra help, or activities? It completely undercuts the point.

This lost day is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to school budget cuts. But it underscores quite drastically the way budget cuts are decimating schools' ability to make choices that will best help students; instead, they're left playing defense. Texas, which has many districts with the four-day policy, is a particularly egregious example of the toll budget cuts have taken on education.

A local columnist explained how the 2011-'12 school year is going to begin for young Texans: 

The massive cuts to public education approved last spring in Austin also will have long-lasting and devastating consequences for the children of our state. CPPP estimates that Texas schools must manage cuts, on average, of nearly $1,000 per student just when the needs of our students are increasing. Although earlier this month HISD restored some funding to schools that had been previously cut, the severity of the reductions mandated by the Legislature won't come to fruition for another year or longer. It is clear that dark times are ahead for the hard-working employees and families of Texas schools.

Paul Krugman made a similar point earlier this year when addressing Texas budget cuts, noting that the right-wing push to de-fund schools and hurt children will result in economic pain in the future: "The really striking thing about all this isn’t the cruelty — at this point you expect that — but the shortsightedness. What’s supposed to happen when today’s neglected children become tomorrow’s work force?"

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.
 
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