Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Why four-fifths of an education isn't enough

During the coming legislative session, Iowa lawmakers will probably be under pressure to allow schools to start going to a four-day school week.

It's just the opposite of what they should be looking at.

A four-day school week is about how cheaply we can get away with educating our children, not about how well we can do it.

Sadly, some advocates for the change will probably be teachers themselves. They stand to get a three-day weekend pass for the same pay as they now get for five-day weeks. We will see if they weigh in based on what's good for their students, or most attractive for themselves.

The business community may also jump on the four-day bandwagon. Such a change would mean they can take advantage of minimum-wage high schoolers to work their counters on Fridays or Mondays.

For administrators of very small districts that are bleeding population, a four-day week may look like the final straw to gasp to keep their schools doors open and their budgets halfway balanced.

Despite all of the handwriting on the walls for years now, many of them have resisted opportunities to talk sharing or consolidation with neighboring districts, and have failed to grasp the potential for regional school ideas. They choose to continue what they have always done, to the bitter end - where there will be no choice, neither the bodies to fill desks or the per-pupil funding to pay teachers.

There is a mindset that every small town must have its own schools - let's face it, what they too often mean by that is high school sports - to continue to exist.

And honestly, they may have a point. Losing a school may accelerate what is already happening, and if a tiny town had hopes of attracting new young families, the hopes will indeed grow dimmer if an education is a long bus ride away. But does our selfishness stand to sacrifice quality for our children and grandchildren's learning?

There are no easy answers. If there were, towns like Fonda wouldn't be struggling with the future for their school right now, and ones like Aurelia wouldn't be talking with their neighboring districts for a decade without being any closer to a decision. Sharing is an issue on the table for virtually every district in the region, and while some like to pretend that some big company or huge housing development is going to drop out of the clouds and change everything, it's not going to be any different any time soon.

A four-day school week isn't going to change the outlook, ultimately.

Neither is doing a front-page advertorial in the Des Moines Register celebrating the four-day system being used in Nebraska. What are they going to say there, that their decision put money ahead of kids' needs?

In talking to some of the local superintendents, not one questions that it would save cash, beginning with less busing cost. The idea has to resonate with those rural districts with small numbers but huge areas of farm country to cover with buses. So why not three days then? No lunches, or computers or after-school program? No art or music or plays? No gym? No new books? That would save even more, if that is really and truly what we are out to do.

I wonder what those kids will be doing on that day of the week that they are no longer being educated?

The economic realities are that parents are going to be working, often in a bigger city down the road. Iowa's smallest communities may have few if any child care options.

Older high schoolers may be working. Maybe. But a whole lot of kids would be home alone, vegetating in front of a TV or video games, or possibly worse.

What about the school employees? Teachers are on contract, but what about some of the classroom aides, lunch staff, janitors, etc? Will they get the same pay for less hours?

What people might not notice is that in the Nebraska district being profiled, where the system has supposedly been so well received, families of 50 kids pulled their children from the school almost immediately in favor of other districts with five-day classes. That's close to 10 percent of the student body lost. How many Iowa districts would want that - or is that part of the savings strategy too?

If Iowa allowed four-day school, it would no doubt take some action to ensure that the number of hours be maintained. In the Nebraska district, that means kids are in classrooms from 7:55 a.m. until at least 4 p.m. In Idaho, families say that four-day school has their kids waiting for a school bus at 5:30 a.m., and it is almost 12 hours until they get home.

Especially for younger children, do we really expect their attention span to run that long? As Storm Lake school leaders remind us, the studies show that students do not learn best in that way. Would teachers have to backtrack because kids forget lessons with three-day vacations every week? And does anyone think that four-day high school will make a student better prepared to get a college scholarship or be successful in a career - neither of which end at four days?

Iowa currently requires 180 days of school, exactly the national average, and schools cut it as close as they can. Our national standing as the education leader is no longer so clear, though we still do very well.

Why are we going into this session talking about ways to offer Iowa children less?

Why aren't we exploring ways for the state to offer the best education possible, not the cheapest one possible?

Some years ago in this state we were talking about year-around schooling, which would have advantages for both continuity of learning and family vacation/activities time. That has all but been forgotten in the rush to cut school costs.

If our schools can't provide five days of quality learning, shame on us.

Education is our state government's greatest responsibility. Let's go into this session dedicated to making Iowa's education the best it can be, not to justify cutting corners on our own children.