Fewer School Days Won’t Solve Budget Worries in California

Successive years of budget cuts, funding deferrals and a policy preventing the layoff of teachers have left school districts in California with few options. Legislators last year suggested that boards could slash up to seven more days from the end of the school year to help cope with midyear cuts. But local educators aren’t keen on that, writes Diana Lambert at the Sacramento Bee.

“That is such a drastic measure and such bad policy, I can’t imagine any district would consider using that flexibility,” said Gayle Garbolino-Mojica, superintendent of Placer County schools.

California faces a budget shortfall of $3.7 billion this fiscal year, but unlike past years, this shortfall could trigger automatic and direct cuts to public schools. If midyear projections show revenues falling short by June 2012, lawmakers have designated $2.5 billion in midyear reductions to a range of programs, including K-12 districts.

Under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California cut its minimum school year requirement from 180 days to 175. In approving this year’s budget, lawmakers said districts could go as low as 168 days.

However, many educators have spoken out, saying that the idea of cutting days from this school year “virtually unworkable.” And given the practicalities involved, they claim that, even if they wanted, most school districts would not be able to cut the year to 168 days.

Shortening the school year requires an agreement between districts and their employee unions, and not all districts have the legal authority to reopen contracts. And it is thought that teachers would be reluctant to cut the school year because doing so increases the time it takes to accumulate service credit toward pensions.

Teachers must work at least 175 days to qualify for a year of service credit, said California State Teachers’ Retirement System spokesman Ricardo Duran.

“Shortening the school year is a legislative solution, and it’s a negotiable item,” said Priscilla Cox, president of the Elk Grove Unified school board.

“Who knows if it can be negotiated or not.”

More than half the state’s districts already offer fewer than 180 days of school.

“It’s terrible,” said David Gordon, Sacramento County schools chief.

“We should be ashamed and embarrassed to be affording so little school time to our kids.”

It would seem that cutting school days would fly in the face of the Obama’s Administration’s prerogative of adding classroom hours. Obama has said U.S. students are losing ground to their counterparts around the world, some of whom attend school 220 days a year.

“California is going against the grain,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at UC Berkeley.

“Research is quite consistent that classroom time – after teacher quality – is probably the most valuable resource related to gains in student achievement.”