Cuts push many Okla. schools to four-day week

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY EMMA BROWN

Adeep­en­ing bud­get cri­sis here has forced schools across the Sooner State to make painful de­ci­sions. Class sizes have bal­looned, art and for­eign-lan­guage pro­grams have shrunk or dis­ap­peared, and with no money for new text­books, chil­dren go with­out. Per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quence: Stu­dents in scores of dis­tricts are now go­ing to school just four days a week.

The shift not only up­ends what has long been a fun­da­men­tal rhythm of life for fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. It also runs con­trary to the push in many parts of the coun­try to pro­vide more time for learn­ing — and daily re­in­force­ment — as a key way to im­prove achieve­ment, es­pe­cially among poor chil­dren.

But fund­ing for class­rooms has been shrink­ing for years in this deepred state as law­mak­ers have cut taxes, slic­ing away hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in an­nual rev­enue in what some Ok­la­homans con­sider a cau­tion­ary tale about the real-life con­se­quences of the small-gov­ern­ment ap­proach fa­vored by Repub­li­can ma­jori­ties in Wash­ing­ton and state­houses na­tion­wide.

School dis­tricts star­ing down deep bud­get holes have turned to shorter weeks in des­per­a­tion as a way to save a lit­tle bit of money and per­suade in­creas­ingly hardto-find teach­ers to take some of the na­tion’s low­est-pay­ing jobs.

Of 513 school dis­tricts in Ok­la­homa, 96 have lopped Fri­days or Mon­days off their sched­ules — nearly triple the num­ber in 2015 and four times as many as in 2013. An ad­di­tional 44 are con­sid­er­ing cut­ting in­struc­tional days by mov­ing to a four-day week in the fall or by short­en­ing the school year, the Ok­la­homa State School Boards As­so­ci­a­tion found in a sur­vey last month.

“I don’t think it’s right. I think our kids are los­ing out on ed­u­ca­tion,” said Sandy Robert­son, a grand­mother of four in New­cas­tle, a fast-grow­ing ru­ral com­mu­nity set amid wheat and soy­bean fields south of Ok­la­homa City. “They’re try­ing to cram a five-day week into a four-day week.”

Ok­la­homa is not the only state where more stu­dents are get­ting three-day week­ends, a con­cept that dates to the 1930s. The num­ber is climb­ing slowly across broad swaths of the ru­ral big-sky West, driven by a com­bi­na­tion of aus­tere bud­gets, fuel-guz­zling bus rides and teacher short­ages that have turned four-day weeks into an im­por­tant re­cruit­ing tool.

The four-day week is a “con­ta­gion,” said Paul Hill, a re­search pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Wash­ing­ton at Bothell who has stud­ied the phe­nom­e­non in Idaho and who wor­ries that the con­se­quences of the shift — par­tic­u­larly for poor kids — are un­known.

But in other states, the Great Re­ces­sion sparked a spike in the growth of four-day weeks that has since slowed, ac­cord­ing to data col­lected by The Wash­ing­ton Post. Ok­la­homa stands out for the ve­loc­ity with which dis­tricts have turned to a shorter school week in the past sev­eral years, one of the most vis­i­ble signs of a bud­get cri­sis that has also shut­tered ru­ral hos­pi­tals, led to over­crowded pris­ons and forced state troop­ers to abide by a 100-mile daily driv­ing limit.

Democrats helped pass bi­par­ti­san in­come tax cuts from 2004 to 2008. Re­pub­li­cans — who have con­trolled the leg­is­la­ture since 2009 and gov­er­nor­ship since 2011 — have cut in­come taxes fur­ther and also sig­nif­i­cantly low­ered taxes on oil and gas pro­duc­tion.

“The prob­lems fac­ing Ok­la­homa are our own do­ing. There’s not some out­side force that is caus­ing our schools not to be able to stay open,” said state Sen. John Sparks, the cham­ber’s top Demo­crat. “These are all the re­sult of a bad pub­lic pol­icy and a lack of pub­lic-sec­tor in­vest­ment.”

But Gov. Mary Fallin (R) said a down­turn in the en­ergy sec­tor and a de­creas­ing sales tax rev­enue have led to sev­eral “very dif­fi­cult bud­get years.”

The gov­er­nor said in an email to The Post that she thinks “stu­dents are bet­ter served by five­day weeks” be­cause mov­ing to four days re­quires a longer school day. That makes it “hard for stu­dents, es­pe­cially in the early grades, to fo­cus on aca­demic con­tent dur­ing the late hours of the day,” she said.

Fac­ing a $900 mil­lion bud­get gap, law­mak­ers ap­proved a bud­get Fri­day that will ef­fec­tively hold school fund­ing flat in the next year. In Wash­ing­ton, Pres­i­dent Trump has pro­posed sig­nif­i­cant ed­u­ca­tion cuts that would fur­ther strain lo­cal bud­gets.

‘We’ve cut so much for so long’

Few states have schools that are worse off.

Ok­la­homa’s ed­u­ca­tion spend­ing has de­creased 14 per­cent per child since 2008, ac­cord­ing to the left-lean­ing Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties, and the state in 2014 spent just $8,000 per student, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral data. Only Ari­zona, Idaho and Utah spent less.

“We’ve cut so much for so long that the op­tions just are no longer there,” said Deb­o­rah Gist, su­per­in­ten­dent in Tulsa, a dis­trict that still holds classes five days a week but plans to merge schools and elim­i­nate more than three dozen teach­ing po­si­tions.

This year has been par­tic­u­larly tough, as re­peated rev­enue short­falls have left dis­tricts fac­ing midyear cuts. “I’ve done this job a long time, and this is the hard­est I’ve ever had it,” said Tony O’Brien, su­per­in­ten­dent of New­cas­tle schools, which have about 2,300 stu­dents.

El­e­men­tary class sizes in the town now hover around 26 and 27, far higher than a 20-student limit set in a 1990 state law. In 2016, schools started charg­ing to par­tic­i­pate in sports and ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties and, af­ter con­sid­er­able com­mu­nity de­bate, moved to a four-day week, with longer school days.

O’Brien said the sched­ule change helped New­cas­tle shave about $110,000 out of its $12 mil­lion an­nual bud­get, sav­ings that equal more than two teach­ers. The sav­ings come mostly from shut­ting off build­ing util­i­ties on Fri­days and from us­ing less diesel fuel to run buses. Teacher salaries — the bulk of any dis­trict’s cost — didn’t change.

Ex­perts say four-day weeks don’t save much money. In New­cas­tle and else­where, school lead­ers say the big­gest ben­e­fit has been at­tract­ing and re­tain­ing teach­ers in some of the na­tion’s low­est-pay­ing jobs.

Ok­la­homa has not raised teach­ers’ salaries since 2008, and the av­er­age salary in 2013 — $44,128 — put the state at 49th in the na­tion, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est avail­able fed­eral data. Teach­ers are leav­ing in droves for bet­ter­pay­ing jobs across state lines, su­per­in­ten­dents say. And the num­ber of po­si­tions filled by emer­gency-cer­ti­fied teach­ers — who have no ed­u­ca­tion train­ing (or, in O’Brien’s words, “are up­right and breath­ing”) — is now 35 times as high as it was in 2011.

Dis­tricts fig­ure that if they can’t give teach­ers a raise, they can at least give them ex­tra time off.

Chris Treu, a New­cas­tle High busi­ness teacher in her 20th year, said that with a master’s de­gree and an ex­tra stipend for work­ing in ca­reer and tech­nol­ogy ed­u­ca­tion, she earns about $48,000 — barely more than some of her for­mer stu­dents earn fresh out of col­lege. “It’s dis­heart­en­ing,” she said. “If I have to go back to a five-day week, I think I’m done, be­cause I know I’m not go­ing to get more money.”

Shan­non Chlou­ber, a third­grade teacher at New­cas­tle El­e­men­tary, said she spends half her Fri­days off work­ing on les­son plans and grad­ing pa­pers, leav­ing her week­ends free and mak­ing a re­lent­less job more sus­tain­able. She is an 18-year class­room vet­eran, and she earns $39,350. “If I were sin­gle, I’d be on wel­fare,” she said.

Ok­la­homa opened the door to shorter weeks in 2009 with a bill meant to help school dis­tricts cope with snow-day clo­sures. The change al­lowed schools to meet in­struc­tional re­quire­ments by hold­ing class ei­ther 1,080 hours or 180 six-hour days a year.

That flex­i­bil­ity opened the way for dis­tricts to try four-day weeks — a move that in many cases re­quired length­en­ing each re­main­ing day by about 45 min­utes.

Re­search on the aca­demic ef­fects of four-day weeks is thin, and the pic­ture is de­cid­edly muddy. A 2015 study of fourth- and fifth-graders in Colorado showed that stu­dents on four-day weeks fared bet­ter in math than their peers on tra­di­tional sched­ules, and no dif­fer­ent in read­ing.

Tim Tharp, Mon­tana’s deputy state su­per­in­ten­dent of ed­u­ca­tion, found the op­po­site when he stud­ied longer-term ef­fects for his 2014 Uni­ver­sity of Mon­tana doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion. Mon­tana stu­dents tended to show aca­demic gains in the first year of four-day weeks, but over four or five years, their achieve­ment de­clined.

Tharp thinks that dis­tricts at first pick up the aca­demic pace to make sure their stu­dents don’t lose ground, but then grow com­pla­cent and start teach­ing as though they’re still on five-day weeks. “Old rou­tines are easy to slip back into,” he said.

‘Some peo­ple don’t get to eat’

Many par­ents here said they like the four-day sched­ule be­cause it gives them more time with their chil­dren. Prin­ci­pals were also up­beat, say­ing grades are up, dis­ci­plinary in­ci­dents down, and stu­dents and staff hap­pier and more mo­ti­vated. Teach­ers said stu­dents are far­ing as well or bet­ter, aca­dem­i­cally, than be­fore.

Pre­dictably, plenty of young peo­ple are thrilled.

“It rocks,” said Jor­dan Ban­field, 18, who liked hav­ing Fri­days off dur­ing her se­nior year at New­cas­tle High. “You hon­estly don’t dread go­ing to school as much.”

But even kids are not unan­i­mous. Chad Mar­ble said his sec­ond-grader, Emer­son, comes home com­plain­ing that school is too rushed. And some chil­dren are sen­si­tive to the fact that the four-day week means ex­tra stress for work­ing fam­i­lies that strug­gle to find day care and poor chil­dren who de­pend on school for meals.

“It’s good and bad,” one New­cas­tle fourth-grader said. “The good part is we have more time with our fam­i­lies, and the bad part is some peo­ple don’t get to eat.”

New­cas­tle has ar­ranged for low-cost child care on Fri­days — $30 per child per week — and the town has a low poverty rate by Ok­la­homa stan­dards. Only about one-third of stu­dents qual­ify for free- and re­duced-price lunch. A food bank sends ex­tra food home with hun­gry stu­dents to tide them over dur­ing long week­ends, but teach­ers say few ask for that help.

In most other Ok­la­homa dis­tricts with four-day weeks, the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of stu­dents qual­ify for sub­si­dized meals.

Ma­comb, a tiny ru­ral dis­trict where 88 per­cent of stu­dents qual­ify for sub­si­dized meals, was on four-day weeks un­til Su­per­in­ten­dent Matthew Riggs per­suaded the school board in 2015 to re­turn to a tra­di­tional sched­ule.

Riggs said he could not “in good con­science” con­tinue the four-day weeks — not when his stu­dents were al­ready strug­gling in math and read­ing, and not when some were go­ing hun­gry.

Meals are also a con­cern for David Pennington, su­per­in­ten­dent in Ponca City on the western edge of the Osage Reser­va­tion, where nearly 70 per­cent of stu­dents qual­ify for sub­si­dized meals. Ponca City cut 25 po­si­tions last year, con­sol­i­dated bus routes, stopped of­fer­ing Ger­man and wood shop, and packed 38 kids into one high school astron­omy class.

Pennington said that four-day weeks are on the ta­ble for next fall but that he doesn’t want to go that route. He’s more in­clined to stop hiring sub­sti­tute teach­ers or to get rid of less-pop­u­lar ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties.

“I can’t even re­mem­ber the last time we sat down and talked about what can we do that’s good for kids,” he said. “Our con­ver­sa­tions are what are we go­ing to cut next.”

“I don’t think it’s right. I think our kids are los­ing out on ed­u­ca­tion. They’re try­ing to cram a five-day week into a four-day week.” Sandy Robert­son, a grand­mother of four in New­cas­tle

BILL O’LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Kristie Bradley of New­cas­tle, Okla., with the fam­ily dog Ban­dit, spends time with her chil­dren, from left, Leah, 11, Cooper, 3, Macy, 7, and Colton, 9, on a Fri­day, now that they no longer have school that day be­cause of bud­get cuts.

BILL O’LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Doyle Hatchel picks up his grand­son, Luke Hamp­ton, in New­cas­tle, Okla., where many kids now go to school four days a week.

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