OKLAHOMA CITY — The state’s bar has been set for schools to operate on a four-day week, and the requirements could force many schools back to five days a week.
School leaders and community members can weigh in for the next three weeks on new proposed qualifications schools must meet to use an abbreviated academic calendar.
Under a new law intended to curb the use of four-day school weeks, a school year must be at least 165 days beginning in 2021 unless a district receives a waiver from the state Board of Education. To receive a waiver, schools must meet certain academic standards based on the most recent school report cards.
In 2018-19, more than 240 districts had at least some schools in session fewer than 165 days, according to Education Department data. Of those, 151 were in session five days a week, and 92 had at least one school using a four-day week.
Inola Public Schools, about 30 miles east of Tulsa, had the shortest school year in 2018-19, at 134 days. Superintendent Kent Holbrook said it would be harder to go back to five days than it was to go to four days, which the district did a few years ago amid state aid funding cuts.
“The decision was not four days versus five days. The decision was four days with 20 to 21 first- and second-graders versus five days with 27 to 33,” he said. “It’s not a contest, in my mind.”
Every day added back in increases costs for janitors, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and utilities, he said.
A committee formed under the state Board of Education came up with the proposed state requirements, which will go to the Legislature for final approval in 2020.
For elementary and middle schools, the proposed requirements are:
• Student growth at or above the state average in English language arts.
• Student growth at or above the state average in math.
For high schools, the proposed requirements are:
• A graduation rate at or above the state average.
• Percentage of students meeting achievement targets at or above the state average.
• Percentage of students completing postsecondary opportunities at or above the state average.
It’s possible that some schools within a district would qualify and not others, but several superintendents said for logistical reasons they would place the whole district on the same schedule.
Early childhood centers with students not above second grade would only qualify if the school feeds into a school that meets the guidelines.
Additionally, any school identified for comprehensive, targeted or additional support and improvement on the report cards would not qualify.
Cost savings minimal
The committee was expected to set guidelines for “district cost savings” as well. Instead, the proposed rules require schools to submit a budget and a narrative describing their cost savings, but they do not set any parameters. The proposals states that making a universal standard for cost savings was “impractical.”
Any cost savings likely have been minimal. One study by the Education Commission of the States found the maximum a district could save was 5.43%, which is far below the nearly 20% that some people in the community assume, and that most districts would save only between 0.4% and 2.5%.
While many schools made the switch to a four-day week hoping to see a financial benefit, not all did. Many say the move was more about recruiting certified teachers amid a teacher shortage.
For David Morrow, superintendent of Bridge Creek Public Schools in Blanchard, the four-day weeks were about attracting teachers to the district.
“I had to have another carrot,” Morrow said. “The year before I moved (to four-day weeks) I had three elementary openings and five applicants. And three of those applicants I didn’t really want. It really tied my hands trying to get effective teachers in the classroom.”
Looking at preliminary test score data, he believes Bridge Creek will qualify for a waiver, which he will try to get. Morrow said he’s afraid if the district doesn’t qualify and has to add those 13 days back, teachers will leave.
Fewer, longer days
Until a few years ago, a school year was defined under state law as 180 days, but a provision was added to allow 1,080 hours instead. The purpose was to give schools flexibility in case of inclement weather.
In the past few years, school funding woes and a growing teacher shortage led many districts to adopt a shortened week while still meeting the mandated hours. Some, like Bridge Creek, added 40 minutes to the school day.
The trend has placed Oklahoma in a national spotlight, and drawn the ire of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who said in an op-ed article that “forcing the academic year into fewer, and longer, days with extended weekly gaps in instruction does not create an optimal learning environment for our students.”
The Legislature this year passed Senate Bill 441, which requires the 165-day minimum, but allows some flexibility for schools with the waiver. If the Legislature adopts the committee’s rule proposal in 2020, the waivers will be required beginning in 2021-22.
Most states require 180 days but many also allow 1,080 hours, according to National Center for Education Statistics. Four-day school weeks have proliferated in a few states, particularly Colorado, where more than 60% of school districts now use a shortened week.