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State, Federal Lawmakers Weigh Longer School Year

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Lengthening the school year was on the agendas of both state and federal lawmakers last week, as the Utah legislature considered a measure setting more school days and a U.S. Senator introduced a bill calling for a national commission to study the idea.

Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, introduced a bill Jan. 30 that would establish a commission to make recommendations on encouraging a longer school year. The measure was co-sponsored by five other senators.

A bill to prolong the school year is also due to be considered this session in the Missouri legislature. In addition, governors in Vermont, Colorado, and New Mexico have endorsed the concept in recent weeks in their State of the State messages.

In Utah, the legislature's education committee approved and sent such a bill to the full House last week. The bill would add two days per year to the state's 180-day school calendar until it reached 200 days.

Support is Thin

According to a survey by the Education Commission of the States, states require anywhere from 170 to 182 school days a year.

At a press conference introducing his bill, Senator Bingaman made the case for a longer school year.

"All studies indicate that our students get less instruction than students in other countries," he said. Students in countries such as West Germany, Japan, Great Britain, and South Korea attend school as many as 243 days per year, he said.

"If that's true," he added, "I don't think it's reasonable to say to our students, 'Why are you doing so poorly on this math test?"'

But observers say the outlook is unfavorable for moves to expand the school year.

Many state lawmakers are wary of adding days to the school calendar--especially at a time when a number of states are suffering the effects of stagnant economies.

The Utah bill's chances of passing this year are "virtually nil," said state Representative Richard J. Bradford, co-chairman of the joint committee on public-education appropriations.

He said the state simply does not have the money to pay for more days. He estimated it would cost about $5 million a year for each day added.

Lawmakers elsewhere agreed.

"Because of the cost attendant to increasing the number of days, there's just tremendous resistance to doing it," said state Senator Carl A. Parker of Texas, chairman of the Senate committee on public education. The Texas legislature is scheduled to convene later this month to revamp the state's school-finance system.

Senator Bingaman's federal bill, meanwhile, has met with "less than enthusiastic response" among constituents and educators, according to his spokesman. She said opponents cited the higher cost of a longer year and its potential disruption of family schedules.

Teachers' Unions Reluctant

Teachers' unions also have traditionally been reluctant to support a longer school year.

The National Education Association "has been looking at the idea for a number of years," according to Gary Timmons, an n.e.a. lobbyist.

But Mr. Timmons said the union was unsure whether it would support Senator Bingaman's bill. Any national effort to lengthen the school year would have to consider the impact on local communities, he said.

"There's an enormous difference between communities across this country," he said. "To the degree that those recommendations would call for some sort of standardization of the school year, the n.e.a. would have a problem."

In Missouri, the state's largest teachers' union has withheld its support from the longer-school-year bill.

The measure would increase the school year by two or three days a year throughout the 1990's, with the ultimate goal of a 200-day school year by 2000. Missouri currently requires at least 174 days of school--the lowest standard in the nation, except for Minnesota, which requires a minimum of 170 days, according to the ecs survey.

According to Bruce Moe, a spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, the bill has many faults. It fails to address satisfactorily the issue of increased teacher compensation, he said, or to consider the fact that many schools in the state lack air-conditioning.

"At this point, our state is not funding education adequately for the days that we have," Mr. Moe said. "We need to make better use of the time that teachers currently have."

Supporters of a longer school year, in Missouri and elsewhere, concede that they face long odds. But they also say they are pleased--for now at least--simply to begin the debate.

Said Robert E. Bartman, commissioner of education in Missouri and a supporter of a longer school year: "Discussion in the state has been started. ... It's a new concept in Missouri; it may take people more than a year to get used to it."

Staff Writer Ann Bradley contributed to this report.

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