The likelihood is growing that many school districts will have to cut the number of days students spend in class in response to the state's deepening budget crisis, according to state education leaders and experts.
But despite fears that the coming school year could shrink to 150 or 155 days – from the current minimum of 175 days set by the state in 2009 – no firm figures or proposals have been proposed by the state Legislature, State Board of Education or Gov. Jerry Brown.
Last month state Treasurer Bill Lockyer suggested the school year might have to be cut by two months to achieve all the anticipated savings should Gov. Brown's tax extension fail. But Lockyer spokesman Tom Dresslar said, "He was just throwing this out as 'this is what could happen.' ... Nobody has formally proposed that. Everyone is working like hell to avoid making a reduction of that magnitude."
Michael Kirst, Stanford emeritus professor of education and president of the State Board of Education, says there are effectively only three places school districts can find the massive savings needed to make up for a possible $4.5 billion to $5 billion school budget shortfall: increasing class sizes, cutting staff salaries while having them work the same number of days, or shortening the school year while giving teachers and other staff unpaid furlough days.
Of the three, shortening the school year may offer the most viable budget-cutting option.
Many school districts may no longer have the option of increasing class size. "You can't stuff in many more students when you get up to 35 to 40 per classroom," Kirst said. Some have reached or are approaching class size limits imposed by state law. In some circumstances, K-3 classes can have as many as 33 students, and fourth through eighth grade classes can have 40.
Although there are no size limits on high school classes, some are getting so crowded they would run the risk of violating fire safety laws if they were any larger, said Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California, a leading education consulting firm in Sacramento.
Teachers are also unlikely to agree to teach the same number of days without getting paid for them, said Bennett, a veteran teacher contract negotiator. He said in negotiations around the state teachers in districts that have shrunk their instructional calendar have typically agreed to lower pay without getting an equivalent amount of time off.
A survey of the state's 30 largest school districts last year by California Watch showed that 16 intended to reduce their school year during the current school year. Bennett said that according to his estimates about half of California's nearly 1,000 school districts have shortened their school year to under 180 days. That puts it behind at least 30 other states with a school year of 180 days or more.
Bennett said under one budget scenario discussed at a state Senate hearing last week, school districts would face a funding reduction of $800 to $825 per student, in addition to a $1,000-per-student reduction they have already suffered through. According to this scenario, this high level of cutbacks would occur if Gov. Brown plan to extend taxes this summer fails, as now seems likely, and Proposition 98 – which guarantees districts a significant portion of the state's budget – is suspended.
Even shrinking the school year by an entire month, Bennett said, would only cover about about half the budget cuts of that magnitude.
Kirst pointed to research that shows the length of the school year has a demonstrable impact on academic achievement. He is convinced a shorter school year would have an impact on student learning, especially in subjects like algebra, which involve teaching a very specific set of concepts during the year. That's because teachers may simply not have enough time to get to all of them.
A key determinant of whether California will end up with an even shorter year is whether employee unions would agree to it. A shorter school year may turn out to be the least painful of a series of painful options they will be facing. Whatever happens, the Legislature will have to take some action, just as it did two years ago when it reduced the minimum school year from 180 days to the current level of 175.
That puts California even further behind the 200 to 220 days recommended by the landmark 1984 A Nation At Risk report which it said were needed to overcome "the rising tide of mediocrity" that enveloped the nation's schools.