Washington state’s school superintendent says he opposes the expansion of half-days on school calendars and wants lawmakers to act next year to give his office the authority to curb them.
“Just because the adults have the problem of not having enough money does not mean we should take away kids' instructional time,” Randy Dorn told KING 5.
Now in his fifth year as superintendent, Dorn has seen unprecedented cuts to Washington’s educational system, the result of the 2007-08 financial crisis and a still recovering economy. As tax receipts from property taxes fell, many school districts looked for creative, low cost ways to provide teachers with time for training and collaboration on lesson plans.
“So they moved to this partial-day thing,” said Dorn. “I think it’s a burden on parents, working parents that have to do all the arrangements.”
By law, Washington school districts must provide 180 days of instruction to students. If the students show up for even one minute of instruction, the district can count that as a school day.
Many districts have added late start and early release days to their calendars in recent years, with teachers allowed to pursue their own development projects during the hours students aren't in the classroom. In effect, the practice allows a district meets two goals: credit toward meeting the 180-day calendar requirement, and support for teachers without incurring the budget hit of additional paid days.
Dorn said he hopes to change that next year by convincing the legislature to set standards for a minimum school day, likely six hours. “If there’s two hours taken off a school day, to me it wouldn’t count as a school day,” said Dorn.
Similar legislation -- Senate Bill 5588 -- failed in the regular 2013 session.
In its ongoing series “School’s Out,” the KING 5 Investigators revealed the growing numbers of partial days that districts are adding. The reports also showed that waiver days, in which a district gets a state-approved exemption on meeting the minimum 180-day school year requirement, have grown by more than 300 percent in the last few years.
“I don’t like the idea of waivers. I don’t like the idea of half-days for professional development,” said Dorn. “Especially the kids that struggle the most, it hurts them the most if we’re not in the classroom teaching.”
Many school administrators and the state’s largest teacher’s union, the Washington Education Association (WEA), say the budget is to blame for the prevalence of half-days and waiver days. They argue that teachers' professional development time is vital to providing a quality education, noting that teachers use this non-classroom time to hone their lesson plans and discuss how to target those plans to each individual student. Administrators and teachers say studies show that these efforts result in students achieving higher grades.
“The lack of adequate time for professional development, collaboration and planning is just one of the problems caused by underfunding,” WEA spokesperson Rich Wood wrote in an email to KING 5.
He said school districts use half-days and other “creative solutions” to create room for collaboration time because funding cuts don’t allow districts to pay teachers for that time outside of the normal school schedule.
“That’s reality,” said Wood. “Washington class sizes are ranked 47th in the nation, and our teachers are the lowest paid among West Coast states. Local school districts are doing the best they can with the resources the Legislature is providing... .”
Dorn, however, said some districts have found that time through improved use of teacher planning time and scheduling.
Washington's fourth-largest district may be the most recent example of that. For two years, administrators in the Kent School District studied ways to improve teacher collaboration time. A committee of teachers and administrators recommended last month that the district place 30 two-hour, late-start Wednesdays on next year’s calendar. But on June 12 the school board rejected that recommendation and decided to keep the current schedule.
“Student achievement is and must be our primary mission,” said a joint statement from the school board and the teachers and principals associations. “Collaboration is an essential element of meeting that mission...” but “...we should continue to explore other options to work collaboratively without making any schedule changes next year,” the statement said.
“What I’m saying very bluntly is I believe we should have kids going to school 180 days,” said Dorn. “We’re gonna need more resources and more respect for professional development, I just don’t believe it should be out of the kids’ day. That, to me, shouldn’t be an option.”