School week: Day off not a substitute for adequate pay

Thursday, May 3, 2018 7:04 PM
Clark Wilhelm, who works in the Douglas County school system, cheers during a teacher rally Thursday, April 26, 2018, in Denver. Teachers in Colorado walked out of their classes over low salaries keeping hundreds of thousands of students out of school. It’s the latest in a series of strikes across the nation over low teacher pay. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Last Friday, over 3,000 teachers from over a dozen school districts gathered at the Capitol to demand an increase in state funding for public education.

One of the outcomes of inadequate funding – according to the Colorado Education Association by $822 million, $2,700 below the national average in per-pupil funding – is that over the past two decades, more than 100 of Colorado’s 259 school districts have shifted to a four-day schedule. Some, deciding that the benefits have not outweighed the problems, have shifted back. Most have not.

Currently, 98 of the state’s districts, in our region including Mancos and Dolores County (Dove Creek), have a four-day week, and several others have modified the five-day schedule in other ways. Montezuma-Cortez returned to a five-day schedule in 2012.

A Colorado Department of Education report issued last fall said, “The general feeling is that students do no worse on the four-day week than on the traditional schedule. … Few districts have changed from five to four days with the expressed purpose of improving student achievement.” That might raise eyebrows among taxpayers who believe that school districts should base all their decisions on educational criteria, but budget deficits have a definite negative impact on education.

The benefits are quantifiable. Such costs as building utilities and transportation are decreased. Students and staff appreciate having an additional day off every week. Attendance may be higher. The schedule is a boon to districts competing to recruit teachers amid a shortage of qualified educators.

The four-day week can help districts attract and retain good teachers, which is a definite plus, but think for a moment about what that really says: Because of inadequate school funding, even in the absence of identifiable educational benefits, districts have changed their schedules – so that some teachers can take second jobs to make ends meet.

That’s a creative way to address the problem, but it’s not the right way. The advantage is diminishing as more districts offer the same schedule.

Meanwhile, a recent Colorado Public Radio story pointed out that while overall achievement does not seem to be affected, CDE “did not break out performance measures for higher needs students, and did not address how the change may affect the achievement gap between white and minority students, which is particularly high in Colorado.”

Students who are succeeding because of supportive family situations may be able to participate in enriching educational activities on the fifth day of the week, while others may not or even have safe, high-quality child care. Hungry students miss a day of free or reduced-price school lunch, and a recent study suggests that juvenile crime rates rise with the change. For younger students, the longer day is tiring.

Being pushed into schedule changes by budgetary concerns, then, is unfortunate. No district – or business – operates under ideal conditions, but the stakes here are extremely high. These are the students we hope will contribute to a future of economic prosperity in which schools can be appropriately funded and staffed.

Good luck to the districts on this schedule. The four-day week may be a workable plan, but it’s no substitute for better school funding. Colorado should step up and solve its school funding problem.