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Is More Better?

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Since the beginning of the current reform movement, there has been a lot of talk about lengthening the school year. For the most part, the school year has stayed the same, but the talk goes on.

This year, lawmakers in several states have been debating whether the benefits of a longer school year would be worth the cost. The issue has even been raised at the federal level. U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced a bill in January that would establish a commission to examine the idea of lengthening the school year and to make recommendations.

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

Currently, states require anywhere from 170 to 182 school days a year. Bills that would extend the school year have been introduced this year in Missouri and Utah. In addition, governors in Vermont, Colorado, and New Mexico endorsed the concept in their State of the State Messages.

But most observers say the outlook is unfavorable for moves to lengthen the school year. Many state lawmakers, they explain, are wary of adding days to the school-year calendar--especially at a time when a number of states are suffering the effects of faltering economies.

The Utah bill's chances of passing this year are "virtually nil," says state Representative Richard Bradford, co-chairman of the joint committee on public education appropriations. The proposed legislation would add two days each year to the school year until it reached 200 days.

Bradford, who estimates that it would cost about $5 million a year for each day added, says the state simply does not have the money to pay for more days.

Senator Bingaman's federal bill, meanwhile, has met with "less than enthusiastic response" among constituents and educators, according to his spokesperson. Opponents, she says, cite the higher cost of a longer year and its potential disruption of family schedules.

Teachers' unions 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," says NEA lobbyist Gary Timmons. The union, he notes, is unsure whether it will support Senator Bingaman's bill. Any national effort to lengthen the school year, he says, would have to consider the impact on local communities.

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

In Missouri, the state's largest teachers' union has withheld its support from the bill to extend the school year. The measure would add two or three days a year to the school calendar 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--one of the lowest standards in the nation.

Bruce Moe, a spokesperson for the Missouri State Teachers Association, believes the bill fails to address satisfactorily the issue of increased teacher compensation or to consider the fact that many schools in the state lack air-conditioning.

Says Moe: "At this point, our state is not funding education adequately for the days that we have. 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.

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

--Michael Newman, Education Week

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