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Lengthening the School Year Will Hurt Schools

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The key to improving education for our students is to restore quality first, then add quantity.

Education issues formed the centerpiece of many of the governors' "State of the State" addresses in January. But along with such welcome reforms as reducing class size came a fiscal time bomb from California's Gov. Pete Wilson: lengthening the school year.

At first glance, it may sound reasonable to improve student performance by requiring kids to attend more school. But as a teacher, I find it disquieting to contemplate the prospect of a longer year draining away hundreds of millions of dollars while far more urgent educational priorities are neglected.

Every day's expansion of the school year in California will cost $50 million. Increasing the school year by seven days, as Gov. Wilson wants to do, would add more than a billion dollars every three years to the state's permanent education budget.

With the hoopla across the country over reducing class sizes in the early primary grades, it's easy to lose sight of the underfunded, overcrowded conditions in which most students and teachers still labor.

Take my school, for example. Many of the 32 students who crowd into my classroom each day sit at old desks with rusted interiors and broken hinges. My meager classroom supply budget hasn't changed in 13 years, so each year I ask parents for donations to help cover the cost of running the classroom.

And that's just the beginning of the fund raising. Parents at the school donate thousands of dollars each year to pay visiting artists to work with students because there is no art or music program.

The lack of money for the most basic equipment means that when students look at the map on my classroom wall, it shows that the Soviet Union, East and West Germany, and Rhodesia are still countries.

The challenges I face at my school, which is located in a solidly middle-class neighborhood, pale in comparison with the abysmal conditions in many urban schools.

The key to improving education for our students is to restore quality first, then add quantity. Given the deplorable state of schools in many areas, expanding the school year now is like installing an expensive stereo system in a car with bald tires and worn-out brakes.

Before we embark on a huge spending program to add a few extra school days, let's first equip schools with decent supplies, current texts, and library books. Let's reinstate the many music, arts, and sports programs cut in recent years. And let's rebuild our dilapidated school buildings, improve teacher salaries to get quality professionals in the classroom, and lower class sizes across all the grade levels.

And finally, let's spend a few bucks to get an up-to-date map for my classroom wall.


John Moir is a teacher and writer living in Santa Cruz, Calif.

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