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Many Rural Districts Like Four -Day School Week, No Reason for Amendment 66

Out on the campaign trail advocating for Amendment 66 (the election is over tomorrow… YAY!), state senator Michael Johnston (D-Denver) has used a variety of points to make the case for the billion-dollar statewide tax increase. One that showed up in a recent email report would be one that many Denver-area residents might gloss over. He touts having driven 28,000 miles for 600 meetings with 7,000 people, then writes:

I am grateful that my kids can still go to school five days a week in a state where 80 school districts can only keep the doors open 4 days a week.

The email message is not the only place the theme has been delivered. Among other places, Johnston also mentioned the four-day week as a plug for Amendment 66 on a recent Colorado Public Radio debate with my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow.

The statement contains a grain of truth. As the Denver Post reported last year, about 80 of the state’s 179 school districts now operate on a four-day week. But why? Because these overwhelmingly rural districts all would like to have five days of school, but can’t afford it? Not so fast. For a significant number of them, it’s not a matter that they can’t keep the doors open on Friday (or maybe Monday), but that they won’t do so.

Back in 2006, when there were only 62 school districts on the four-day week, the Colorado Department of Education reported that not only were these districts still able to provide needed instruction time, but also that the approach adopted by many since the 1980s was widely popular:

Satisfaction surveys indicate that 80% – 90% of community members favor continuing the four-day week in districts which have been on the schedule for several years.

Like anything, such a policy has its tradeoffs of good and bad. Childcare ends up “being a wash,” it says, due to the fact students get home the same time as their parents on school days. And some of the districts use a shorter fifth day for staff meetings and professional development. As to student achievement, the 2006 report observed no differences one way or the other.

To find out more, DeGrow talked on Friday to a couple of rural Colorado superintendents. Superintendent John Kaufman is in his first year running the Plainview Re-2 School District in Kiowa County. Having been a principal in metro-area schools, his bias was toward the five-day week. When he investigated the possibility of switching the district away from a four-day week, he quickly pulled back.

“My district is not anywhere near wanting to go there,” Kaufman said of his eye-opening experience regarding the more standard five-day school week. “I think I’d get a mutiny if I proposed it.”

Rob Ring, the superintendent of Weld County Re-9 — the latest school board to vote No on Amendment 66 — said he his current district is on a five-day calendar, though he had previously worked in districts with the shorter schedule. “The ones that are on [the four-day week] are not doing it for a bunch of money savings,” he said.

Someone could do a survey of the 80 school districts to see how many of them would switch back to a five-day-a-week schedule if Amendment 66 passed. Some rural districts would get a significant infusion of more funds, while some would end up with fewer dollars per student. But it’s safe to say that many rural districts use the four-day model for other reasons, and not just because they “can’t open their doors” one more day.

Interestingly, Ring also critiqued the pro-66 ads promising the tax increase would restore music and PE classes don’t resonate in his rural area, because they have never had to cut those programs. And he wonders how many districts really have cut those programs (so do I). “It has less to do with funding than declining enrollment,” Ring said of the challenges facing Ault-Highland (Weld Re-9) and his rural neighbors.

That’s certainly a problem that a tax increase isn’t going to solve.