As public school districts around Orange County and California struggle to balance their budgets, the proposed solution of a shortened school year as a way to save millions is front and center.
Teachers and their pay cuts aside, what happens to students when several school days are eliminated and they sit at home instead of in a classroom? How are students hurt by fewer instructional days? And, which groups of students are impacted the most?
Prompted by Gov. Brown's suggestion should his proposed November tax initiative not pass, scores of school districts around California are considering teacher furlough days for 2012-13 as the primary vehicle to bridge budget shortfalls. In the Los Alamitos Unified School District, furlough days have been used as a budgeting tool throughout the recession. Each year, the school district saved $2 million via furlough days. The state has cut $185 million from the district’s operating budget in the last two years.
According to Deputy Superintendent Patricia Meyer, the district, is in better financial shape than neighboring communities, but it is still vulnerable to unknown shortfalls in the state budget.
The Los Alamitos Unified School District is looking at a shortened school year if Brown's tax initiative fails. Other budget variables could further reduce that number of school days.
“Every student is impacted by that change. The United States already has students in school less days than all the countries we compete with, and now we’re cutting more days,” said Louise Adler, a professor of Educational Leadership at California State University, Fullerton and a former high school teacher.
Adler noted that many foreign counties have longer school years than the U.S. and that during a student’s entire school career these foreign students have accumulated a year of more of schooling than their American counterparts.
“It is the worst possible way to improve our standing on those tests of competency, compared with other countries,” Adler said of furlough days.
“It’s like we’ve decided to disinvest in the future of people who are supposed to grow our economy and grow our culture," she said. "The message is it hurts everyone. It hurts everybody in the whole state. In essence we’re eating our seed corn here. We’re disinvesting in our future.”
Well-off parents can afford to provide enrichment programs for their children while they are home during the extended summer break, but lower-income students and students with learning handicaps are especially harmed, she added.
Bill Habermehl, the superintendent of Orange County Department of Education, who retires this summer after 46 years in education, agreed.
"There’s no doubt that students who are trying to catch up or are behind a little bit are hurt the most. You’re going to be getting less in return out of the students,” no matter how hard they work, Habermehl said.
According to Habermehl, especially hurt are
- English language learners
- Students who are behind or struggling
- Students from a home with working parents who are not home to help with schoolwork
- Kids from single-parent homes
“Homework is not just going home and completing the questions at the end of the chapter. You really need somebody to review that,” he said.
The negative impact of lopping off days at the end of the year is especially noticeable when students return to school the following fall and require more review, Haberhmehl said.
The “forgetting curve is huge,” he said, and it’s worse for low achievers.
Echoing Adler’s concerns about how American students stack up against their foreign counterparts, Habermehl quoted a study that found 53 percent of a teacher’s time in an eighth grade math class is spent on review in the U.S., compared to 24 percent in Japan and Hong Kong, 34 percent in Switzerland and 36 percent in Australia.
“That’s terrible,” he said. “We’re spending twice as much time not on learning new material but reviewing what kids have forgotten.”
Joseph L. Mahoney, a professor in UC Irvine’s Department of Education, said research shows that extending the length of summer break hurts all children in many ways, especially low-income children.
“In this country, summer is a season of risk for kids,” Mahoney said, and especially for low-income students, who research shows lose more reading achievement and math skills than their better-off peers. “We would never solve the achievement gap unless we deal with summer.”
Child obesity is yet another risk. Mahoney said studies show that weight gain is twice as high over summer break than it is during the school year. “The reality for a lot of these kids is they don’t have a lot to do, and they are indoors and passive with lots of opportunities to eat.”
Habermehl said it would help if school districts revisited the schedule for the calendar year, held low-cost online summer school or promoted more independent study.
“We now have technology. Kids can do a lot of things on remote sites where teachers can post lessons. Education should not be a bricks-and-mortar, 40-kids-in-class concept,” he said.
On the other hand, Adler, a former school board member in the in the 1980s, said cutting teacher pay alone isn’t a viable solution either. Districts would have to break union contracts, creating legal problems, and salary cuts without furlough days would drive the best teachers from education.
“Who will go will be the people that are more entrepreneurial, smarter and more aggressive, the ones we want to keep,” she said.
Don Cardinal, a former teacher and dean of the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University, agreed that while furlough days hurt students, they hurt teachers’ families too. Teachers, he said, are concerned about their salaries being cut just like many other professionals these days, and it’s important to consider the health of the teaching profession by offering decent pay to draw good teachers.
The California Teachers Association supports Brown’s tax measure. An article on the CTA website says, “It is the only funding initiative that takes care of the whole state by closing the budget deficit and paying down the state’s wall of debt. ... If the initiative fails, public education is facing an additional $5 billion in budget cuts next year. This initiative is a balanced solution.”
Cardinal said, “There is no ideal of solution here. The draining of funds from public schools in the last decade is absolutely massive.”