School Daze

If it seems that summer lasted longer this year, it's because it was longer in a matter of sorts.

What? How can summer be more days one year than another? Give credit (or blame) for that to the California state legislature.

Facing a huge budget deficit for the upcoming 2010-2011 year, the legislature figured that if it reduced the number of required school days, it wouldn't have to pay as much average daily attendance money to the state's schools. With the wink of an eye the state's policy makers reduced the length of the school year from 180 days to 175 days. And with that slick move, kids gained an extra week of summer and the legislature saved $1.3 billion in school aid funds.

While it's fairly certain that few kids complained about their expanded holiday, their extra freedom has come at a price. Of the 42 states that publish the number of required public school attendance days, California is now tied for 35th place. The most demanding state is Kansas at 186, while Colorado ranks last at 160. The national average is 180, a full week more than is now required in California.

What this means down the road is hard to predict, but California does not begin this transition from a position of strength. Recent published data shows California 4th graders ranking 49th and 44th in reading and math respectively. And that was before the reduced requirements.

It's not that California is alone in this downward drift. The U.S. average of 180 days per year is nothing to brag about. Many countries have much longer school years, including Japan (210), Korea (204), Australia (198) and Germany (193), to name a few. The students in these countries also perform much better than Americans on international exams. Hovering near the bottom of the American pack only adds to California's long-term woes in terms of competitiveness here and elsewhere.

Still, there is a budget lesson from all of this. After all, if the state can save $1.3 billion from cutting out a week of instruction, we can rub out the entire $20 billion deficit by cutting out another 16 weeks. We may not produce any geniuses, but we won't have to raise taxes. Now, there's a thought!    

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