Flickr photo by Steve and Jemma Copley
California and Utah are the only two states actively allowing schools to cut classroom time from their instructional calendars.
They join about a dozen other states that allow districts to offer a 175-day school year. More than 30 other states require a minimum of 180 days.
Last year, Hawaii slashed its school year to 163 days in dramatic response to its budget crisis. But the move triggered such fierce backlash that the Hawaii Legislature voted in June to undo the move and restore the school year to 178 days in the coming school year, and to 180 in 2011-12, using hurricane relief funds and interest-free loans to do it.
In California, as the state's budget crisis deepens, there has been no such reversal. Last year, the state Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave California districts the right to shorten their school year from the customary 180 days to 175 days, at least through the 2012-13 school year. A survey by California Watch found that 16 of the 30 largest districts are planning to cut their school calendar during the coming year, far more than did so last year.
The Utah State Board of Education made a similar move this spring, allowing districts to cut back their instructional calendar by 5 days at least for this past year and the coming one. "There was a strong feeling that this shouldn't be done, period, but given the tight budget situation the board wanted to give districts that kind of leeway," said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah State Office of Education.
As in California, teachers unions in Utah feel that a shorter school year may be the least painful choice among many painful options to deal with its budget crisis.
"In some cases, cutting some instructional days may be the least painful way to go," Mike Kelley, spokesman for the Utah Education Association, told me. "You are cutting across the board, and that way you are sharing the pain with everyone."
The scale, of course, is vastly different. California has 1,043 school districts, serving 6.2 million students, while Utah has 41 districts serving just over a half million students. And Utah's Peterson told me that so far, only 4 out of Utah's 41 school districts have indicated they will trim their instructional year, preferring to first eliminate teacher professional development and classroom preparation days. That compares to hundreds of school districts in California facing a shorter school year this fall.
In fact, the Granite School District, Utah's largest near Salt Lake City, just moved to restore two classroom days it cut from last year's school calendar, bringing it back to 180 days. By contrast, Los Angeles Unified, by far California's biggest district, will cut a week from the coming school year, just as it did last year.
Michigan is another state that has struggled with the issue of shorter school year. A report last year by the Center for Michigan titled "School Daze: Michigan's Shrinking School Year" showed almost all school districts were offering fewer than 180 days. But the situation in the state is confusing, because the state actually requires districts to offer 1,098 hours of instruction, rather than a specific number of days. The intent of the Legislature was that schools offer 180 days of instruction, or more, but several years ago it changed to measuring the year from days to hours because it wanted to give school districts more flexibility in how they organize their school calendar. Since the "School Daze" report came out, the Michigan Legislature has affirmed that schools should offer more instructional days, without specifying exactly how many.