:42 PM PDT on Sunday, July 25, 2010
By LOUIS FREEDBERG | California Watch in the Riverside Press-Enterprise
Monday, July 26, 2010 - Just as education experts are encouraging more classroom time to improve student grades and test scores, many California districts are moving in the opposite direction by shortening their school year amid a sustained and draining budget crisis.
Of the state's 30 largest school districts, 16 are reducing the number of days in the academic year, according to a survey by California Watch.
Five Inland districts rank in the top 30: San Bernardino City, Corona-Norco, Riverside, Moreno Valley and Fontana.
Corona-Norco, Riverside and Fontana, with more than 136,000 students combined, have cut the school year.
Educators said a shorter year is better than larger class sizes and cuts to other programs.
Moreno Valley has discussed a shorter school year but is still negotiating with teachers.
"Obviously, we would want students in school and for a longer period of time," Corona-Norco Superintendent Kent Bechler said.
But with the school funding shortfalls in California, district officials had to make a painful choice: Cut the school year or cut more teachers and programs such as fine arts, electives and some counseling services.
Inland educators say such programs keep students interested and motivated to come to school. They also help schools focus on preparing students for college and careers, Bechler said.
In the end, officials preferred a shorter year with a fuller academic program, rather than having a longer year with a limited academic program for students, Bechler said.
Across the state, the changes are expected to affect about 1.4 million students in the 30 largest districts alone.
Educators believe a shrinking school year, in combination with other budget cutbacks, could depress hard-won academic gains in recent years. To many, it is a dramatic illustration of how the state's budget crisis has begun to erode not just the fringes, but also the core of public education in California.
"This is a major setback," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "We're reducing opportunities for our students, which puts California students at a competitive disadvantage relative to other states."
A little more than a decade ago, California increased the number of instructional days to 180, catching up with most other states. Two years ago, as the state's economy deteriorated, the state gave districts permission to reduce the calendar to 175 days, but few exercised the option.
No longer. Facing crushing budget deficits, districts throughout the state will cut up to five days from the school calendar by granting teachers and other staff unpaid furlough days. Many also will eliminate days when students are not in the classroom that teachers traditionally have used for class preparation, staff training or parent conferences.
In Southern California, districts with a shorter year include Los Angeles Unified, the state's largest with almost 700,000 students, as well as San Diego, Long Beach, Anaheim and Poway. Several Riverside County districts, including Temecula Valley, Murrieta Valley, Lake Elsinore and Alvord in west Riverside and east Corona, also have cut up to five days.
School officials say they've tried to cut days that would least affect students and instruction. Many off days fall at the end of school year, after state testing or Advanced Placement exams. Several districts also will take the Friday following the Veteran's Day holiday, which falls on Thursday this year.
Even with fewer instructional days, the number of minutes students spend in class will still exceed state requirements, Murrieta Valley spokeswoman Karen Parris said. The district cut four days as part of a furlough package.
The nation's school year, with its lengthy summer vacation, already is viewed as an anachronism dating to when children were needed to work on family farms.
California's shorter school year will put the state even further behind numerous countries, such as South Korea with 220, and Switzerland with 228. Growing numbers of California students will find themselves in the company of those in Kentucky, Maine and Missouri, whose school years are 175 days.
California, which educates 1 in 8 public school children in the United States, is one of the few states in which districts in significant numbers are shrinking their school year, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C.
"California is the basket case of the country," Jennings said. "Fiscally, it is in worse shape than any other state."
The move is accompanied by cutbacks in almost every other aspect of public education, including rolling back or eliminating the state's program intended to keep class sizes in the early grades to just 20 students. Last fall, a survey by California Watch found that the majority of the state's 30 largest districts were increasing class size in the K-3 grades, in some cases to as many as 30 students.
What makes the shorter year attractive to many districts is that it yields large savings. The state's 30 largest districts are expected to save more than $200 million combined.
In Los Angeles, for example, a shorter year will save $145 million. San Diego will save $20.9 million, and Long Beach, $12 million.
By cutting the school year, however, California may be sacrificing a major source of revenue even while it attempts to trim its budget.
To compete for the $3.5 billion school-improvement grant program offered by the U.S. Department of Education, districts must agree to implement four turnaround strategies for their lowest-performing schools. Two of them would require expanding the school day, week or year to increase instructional time for core academic subjects.
Alvord Unified School District, which has Norte Vista High School in west Riverside on the lowest-performing list, rejected the models that would have required increased instructional time because of concerns about how to pay for it.
Some districts have been able to maintain a 180-day school year only by making cuts in other areas.
The San Bernardino City Teachers Association agreed to pay cuts of 1.9 percent without shortening the year for students, school board member Elsa Valdez said.
"They were concerned, too, with how that would affect students," Valdez said.
Some educators who will oversee a shorter school year believe it's more important for teachers to use that time effectively.
But Jennifer Davis, president of the Boston-based National Center on Time & Learning, said some of the most successful schools in recent years have demonstrated convincingly that more time in the classroom brings better results. "The highest-performing public schools in America ... all show that added time is a significant contributor to the success of their students," she said.
Schools chief O'Connell worries that if the state's budget crisis persists, an ever-shrinking school year and larger classes could become the norm. He fears a 170-day school year and 40 students per class with no floor in sight may soon replace the 175-day school year and K-3 class sizes of 30 students.
"This is not hyperbole," he said. "Absent additional funding, this may only be the beginning."
California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Staff writers Michelle L. Klampe and Dayna Straehley contributed to this report.