Four-day School Week

Posted Feb. 04, 2009, at 6:12 p.m.

The state government’s push for school districts to consolidate should be one part of a give and take relationship with local education officials. Another part of the exchange is for the state to give the locals more flexibility in delivering the high quality yet cost-efficient education all parties seek.

The bill proposed by Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, to allow districts to adopt a four-day school week would provide such flexibility. Whether districts actually surmount the many logistical hurdles to making such a big change remains to be seen, but it represents the kind of fresh approach that is needed in fiscally challenging times. And, of course, any local school governing body considering such a change would do well to win broad-based community support before acting.

The savings a four-day week offers school districts are tied to energy. Student transportation fuel costs would see reductions, and the cost of heating and lighting school buildings would also diminish, though not as dramatically. Sprawling rural districts are especially good candidates for such cost savings.

Rep. Millett’s bill would require schools to meet the same instructional time mandates, but instead of being in session for 175 days, they would be allowed to provide an equivalent amount of instruction over a lesser number of days.

The logistical hurdles to switching to a four-day week are potentially significant. Parents who rely on after-school child care would have to find an all-day provider. Perhaps local recreational and religious organizations would step up to provide alternatives for parents. Extracurricular activities would also be affected. And at the legislative hearing on the bill, a parent with a special-needs child testified that longer days would likely be difficult for the child, raising yet another concern.

The bottom line for legislators and the state Department of Education is not whether or not local districts can smoothly implement such changes. Rather, the state must recognize that increasingly, school districts are on their own solving problems that arise from higher costs and shrinking subsidies. The state must trust local officials — who will hear from parents and residents if they make the wrong choice — to weigh the relative merits of these creative adaptations.

“There is going to be enormous pressure on school officials to be creative,” Rep. Millett, a former education commissioner, told fellow legislators. “This is just one tool, an arrow in the quiver, for them to think outside the box.”

It is the first of many new tools the state should offer.

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