Recently, the teachers in our district were asked to give suggestions regarding ways that our district could cut costs since our most recent school levy went down in flames again and money is increasingly tight. Since we have made drastic staff cuts already and are about as bare-boned there as we can get, administrators and our school board are looking for creative alternatives to cutting costs, and who better to ask than teachers.
One suggestion that most of us sent in was to reduce the work week to four days which saves one day’s worth of operating costs for a district. So imagine my interest when I read that a recent Washington Post survey showed that a growing number of school districts are doing exactly what we have recommended.
While the numbers of schools that are trying this approach to cut expenses is not huge, it has more than doubled from an estimated 120 districts in 2009 to 292 currently. (This is out of an estimated 15,000 public school districts.)
This approach to reducing costs allows districts to save money on transportation and administrative costs, which include janitorial work, electricity, heat, busing, school lunches, etc. In order to shorten the week, the four days that school is in session would have to be extended.
One of the concerns to this method is that it can be a logistical problem for working parents who would have to find child care for their younger students on the day that school is not in session. A survey conducted in September among Florida business owners found that 65 percent of entrepreneurs in the state were against a 4-day week. On top of their concerns over the nightmare parents might experience in seeking day care for their students, they worried about the potential risk of leaving older students home alone unsupervised. They also expressed trepidation that the move to a 4-day week might severely impact the lowest-paid employees of school districts: food service personnel and bus drivers.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has expressed his displeasure with the growing trend saying that it would eliminate after school programs and would “hurt children” academically.
In a report in 2009, researchers at the University of Southern Maine found that there was “either no impact or a positive impact on academic performance” when schools moved to a 4-day week. However, according to Kathy Christie, chief of staff of the non-profit Education Commission of the States, which provides information to policymakers to help them make decisions regarding education, more research is needed in order to determine whether this trend is worthwhile or not. Last year, Christie told CNN, “There really is no strong research on how it affects student achievements.”
In lieu of thorough research, proponents of a 4-day week claim that student attendance would be higher if parents had one day a week to schedule doctor’s appointments and other errands that can only be accomplished during the week. This makes a lot of sense; students leave school all of the time for doctor, dental, and orthodontist appointments. And quite often, parents take their child out in the morning for an appointment and never bring them back all day.
Yet, while some districts are talking about reducing the school week, some districts who are struggling academically are considering adding a day to their week. Baltimore schools are considering adding Saturday school, and the superintendent of Memphis City Schools actually submitted a proposal earlier this year which would require students in elementary school up to fifth grade to attend school six days a week.
Our district has had to be creative in the past in order to be fiscally responsible. During the energy crisis in 1976-1977, I am told that the schools in our district went on split sessions, with elementary students attending school in the morning and older students attending in the afternoon in the same building. This allowed them to shut down one building for the winter, thus reducing fuel costs. By all accounts, students seemed to do just fine.
If a 4-day week can get school districts through this lean time, so be it. Teachers will rise to the occasion and make it work until our economy picks up again, and we can go back to normal. Drastic times call for creative measures. And this is an alternative that could work in these drastic times.