Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has taken a quick, strong stand against a 4-day school week that is being considered by some school districts. The legislature passed a bill a few years ago to allow for longer, fewer days, mainly to make it easier for schools to make up “bad weather” days toward the end of the school year. That probably wasn’t a great idea at the time, but at least you could understand the rationale. It’s pretty hard to keep students on task for makeup days at the end of the year anyway. But now some schools are considering going to a 4-day week as a recruitment tool for teachers and to save money on such things as transportation and utilities.
This just seems to be another unanticipated consequence of our state’s unwillingness to responsibly fund our public schools. Since the great recession we have cut school funding more than any other state despite that part of that time included an oil boom with prices over $100 per barrel. At the same time we cut taxes, including a huge gift to the oil and gas industry with a cut from 7 percent to 2 percent in the gross production tax. So now that teachers are voting with their feet and abandoning Oklahoma classrooms, either for teaching jobs in other states or jobs outside their chosen profession, schools are scrounging for ways to make a poor-paying teaching job more attractive and to pinch pennies on the gasoline and utility bills.
I don’t think you have to be an education expert to recognize that cutting school days by 20 percent and adding that 20 percent on to the days you have left is a bad idea. Possibly really good or attentive students can focus that much longer each day, but many if not most will not. At least some of the extra time will likely be wasted. And the kids who are already squirming through the current school day will be that much more disruptive. What happens when a kid is sick or absent? If she misses two days it’s half the week. And everyone has bad days, students and teachers. Fewer days makes those “off” days a bigger loss. And finally, what are kids supposed to do with a 3-day weekend every week? I’m pretty sure they won’t be spending all that free time doing homework.
Oklahoma already has among the fewer required school days amongst the states. Time on task is a pretty important part of getting anything done. It’s been recognized for years that we in Oklahoma need to increase, not decrease school days. That effort has been held back because of cost. Superintendent Hofmeister proposed last year that a teacher pay increase be tied to a longer school year. No wonder she was quick to call foul on decreasing school days.