In the face of steep declines in tax revenues, many school districts are scrapping or scaling back their summer school programs, despite pressure on students to meet higher standards.
Since 1996, when Chicago launched one of the nation’s toughest summer school programs to help low-performing students, many school districts have revamped their summer school offerings.
But the programs that once were seen as a tool to help students meet standards and avoid being held back a grade are proving to be vulnerable.
Indiana cut its $21.6 million summer school program this year by 15 percent. The District of Columbia reduced its $20 million summer school program by roughly two-thirds over last year. In Michigan, state lawmakers did not provide funding for a remedial reading and mathematics program for 3rd graders this coming summer and in 2003. And in Florida and South Carolina, midyear budget cuts led many districts in those Southern states to drop summer school.
“It puts poor kids at a disadvantage nationally,” said Thomas Fowler-Finn, the superintendent of the 32,000-student Fort Wayne, Ind., district, which eliminated most of its elementary and middle school summer programs. “Students whose families have other resources will get [summer school] activities anyway with their families or because they can afford other options.”
Not all districts, however, are targeting summer school to cut costs. Chicago and New York City, both coping with severe budget cuts, juggled their finances to protect most of their summer offerings, especially for students who could be held back.
Brian Morrow, the superintendent for promotion policy and summer programs in New York City, said that with a $45 million decrease in the $150 million summer school budget this year, the 1.1 million-student district is eliminating funding for enrichment classes. Class sizes also will be larger this year.
Roughly 200,000 students are expected to enroll in summer classes in the city, down by about 70,000 students from last year.
“We felt that despite the reductions, if we’re going to hold students to standards, we have to give them additional time to make it up to the standards,” he said.
Chicago is already weathering $90 million in cuts to its $3.6 billion budget, but Barbara Eason-Watkins, the chief education officer, said the district approached its budget with “a commitment to maintaining our summer program.”
The city’s $31.8 million summer school program will serve more than 120,000 students this year—about the same number as last year. The program includes a mandatory remediation program for students in grades 3, 6, and 8.
Looming state budget cuts, however, could leave the 435,000-student district with a $22 million shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year that could affect summer school in 2003.
Many characterize summer school as an easy and obvious budget-cut victim.
“Teacher salaries are gone. Textbooks are gone. That money’s already spent,” said Jim Foster, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Education, where the 2001-02 education budget lost $160 million due to midyear reductions. "[Summer school] is one of the few things they’ve got that they haven’t paid for yet.”
Harris Cooper, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia who has studied the effects of summer school, said it is often viewed as an add-on and is paid for separately, making it vulnerable.
Mr. Cooper cautioned that districts may regret dropping summer school because the program is often more effective and cheaper than keeping students in school an extra year.
But Irving Hamer Jr., a New York City school board member, said summer school is an ineffective fringe program that is more “symbolic than it is substantive.”
“If [school districts] were getting major outcomes, people would figure out a way to keep summer school programs going,” he said.
Poor results, along with budget cuts, led the Broward County, Fla., district to phase out summer school. The 261,000-student district, which includes Fort Lauderdale, offered summer classes for 62,000 students last year.
This summer, the program’s budget was cut in half, to $10 million, to offer remedial help to about 17,000 students for three weeks before regular classes begin in August, said Frank Vodolo, the district’s executive director of educational programs. Next year, summer school will be eliminated.
“It’s a costly program for the limited gains students are making,” Mr. Vodolo said.
Summer school can be a successful tool if school officials take a different approach, argued John Ristow, a spokesman for the Broward Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
“They’re trying to operate summer school on the same shoestring budget they do during the regular year,” the former summer school teacher said. “If you don’t invest, you can’t expect the return you’re hoping for.”
Without summer school, many Florida high school students are turning to private schools and online courses to make up classes or get ahead.
The Florida Virtual School was bombarded with applications for its first summer program—10,000 in the first week of registration this April, said Bruce Friend, the chief academic officer of the online high school.
The statewide school received an additional $1 million in state funding to run summer courses for roughly 2,500 students, with some teenagers enrolling in multiple classes. The online school served more than 5,000 students this school year.
In Tallahassee, Maclay School, a private, pre-K-12 school, is boosting its summer-course schedule to make room for students who would have attended the now-cancelled public summer school program. The school is charging $350 a class.
William J. Montford, the Leon County superintendent in Tallahassee, said that to absorb a $4.4 million cut in state funds this year, the district eliminated its $1.2 million summer school program. He said the district expects to retain more students this year, because 77 percent of the 4,500 students in summer school last year were promoted.
Still, he said the 34,000-student district found that “a lot of students buckled down and took their work more seriously” after learning that summer classes were cancelled.
Although some districts have shelved their summer programs this year, they may be resurrected in the future.
Mr. Cooper, the University of Missouri professor, predicts summer school will return because society is warming to the notion that students should spend more time in school—not less.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Budget Cuts Target Schools’ Summer Courses