In the world of public education, what is best for students can easily get lost in the myriad bureaucracy of state and federal regulations, not to mention constant budget cuts and the flurry of classroom trends that seem to come and go faster than a politician can change positions on an issue.
Such is the case in Oklahoma, where a substantial number of local school systems are bucking state leaders – including Governor Mary Fallin – over how long the school week should be.
The tiff began more than a year ago, when the state announced significant education funding cuts to help make up for a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion, an action that left district superintendents scrambling to come up with the means to adjust.
Enter the four-day school week.
While knocking a day off the school week won’t save a billion dollars statewide, in rural systems with large service areas and small student bodies, the savings in diesel fuel alone can often mean the difference between filling an empty teaching position and filling classrooms beyond their normal capacity.
A year ago, Newcastle superintendent Tony O’Brien told the Oklahoma City NBC affiliate, “We are conservatively saying we’re going to save at least $100,000-$150,000, that will be in utilities, transportation, another big cost is in substitute teachers we won’t have to hire.”
In February – just over halfway through Newcastle’s first year under the plan – O’Brien again spoke with the NBC affiliate, saying “I’ve saved almost a teacher in diesel probably already.”
Considering that Newcastle is a southern suburb of Oklahoma City, the savings for more rural systems – which make up the bulk of those opting for a 4-day week – may be even greater.
Systems adjusted their daily class schedules and annual school calendars to make up for the lost time, as well as adding 45 minutes to each day. Teachers and administrators say that students have fared well with the changes, and though some parents say they struggle to find childcare for younger children on Fridays, many are happy with the change. The initiative seems to be yielding the desired result, with no negative impact on student performance.
Enter state lawmakers.
In a state with a well-known conservative Republican governor like Fallin, one would think that increased local control over education would be seen as a good thing – especially when it comes to cost-saving moves that do not negatively impact student outcomes.
One would be wrong, at least in Oklahoma.
“We must have five-day school weeks,” Fallin said during this year’s State of the State address. State Senator Kyle Loveless agreed, introducing a bill that would mandate a five-day week for the state’s schools. As quoted in the more recent NBC story, Loveless stated:
“We need to have kids in schools five days a week … It is a bad PR, a bad image problem, bad optics to the state when we have 100 school districts that have gone to four days.”
Really. A state legislator says that local school systems cannot solve this problem – which, remember, was created by the state legislature – via a method that works for them, for their community, and (lest we forget) for their students because it’s “bad optics” to do so. Amazing.
These statements seem to be in direct contrast to the position Fallin has taken previously on local control. Upon signing legislation in 2015 to expand charter school opportunities statewide and bring charter approval under the authority of local boards, Fallin had this to say:
“The legislation provides more local control for parents and school administrators.”
For his part, O’Brien doesn’t seem ready to budge.
“My school board is the guys who know what’s best for my kids, not somebody at 23rd and Lincoln,” he said, referring to the state legislative offices in Oklahoma City.
Though Loveless’ bill never made it out of committee, another version did. HB1684 requires that any school system following a four-day week submit a plan to the state board of education each year detailing “the intended educational and fiscal benefits and the anticipated impacts or outcomes the plan will have in the school district including a discussion of any potential disadvantages that have been identified by the school district”.
HB1684 passed in the House and is currently under consideration in the Senate. O’Brien stated in an email conversation this week that “This amounts to another unfunded mandate for each of us who has chosen to use a four day week”.
For the sake of the Oklahoma’s students, let’s hope that state lawmakers allow the focus to remain on programs that actually work at the local level rather than on what those programs look like at the state level.
*** If you live in Oklahoma and wish to express your thoughts on this or any other educational issue, start by contacting your local school superintendent. Then call your representatives in the state legislature and share your thoughts with them. You’d be surprised how great a difference one single contact can make.
This story has been updated to include information regarding pending legislation.