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Gov. urges 5 fewer school days

A proposal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to shorten the school year by five days is creating panic among educators across California, who say they barely have enough time to fit the state’s academic standards into the existing 180-day calendar.

The idea to cut funding equivalent to five school days would save $1.1 billion at a time when California faces a massive budget deficit. But state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell called the proposal “devastating.”

“It would particularly hurt our low-income students and students of color,” he said, because affluent districts are more likely to be able to pay for the five days themselves while poorer districts will be forced to eliminate those teaching days. “The result would be a further widening of the achievement gap,” he said.

If the Legislature approves the proposal, California would join Kentucky, North Dakota and a few other states that require the least number of school days.

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Parents are worried that the quality of their children’s education would suffer and some said that it was an economic issue for them as well -- with an additional week of child-care costs. “I’m a single parent. It’s hard to make ends meet,” said Tina Herrera, 41, a Long Beach resident whose 9-year-old son attends Holmes Elementary School. “One extra week of child care is hard on my wallet. And there are thousands more just like me.”

Republican Ken Maddox, a former assemblyman who is a school board trustee in South Orange County, said that although he is sympathetic to the governor’s predicament, the state’s schools already are underfunded.

“The standards are getting higher and higher, which is great. It would be nice if the dollars going to schools would get higher and higher,” he said. “Our children deserve the best education possible, not the shortest education possible.”

A Schwarzenegger spokesman said the suggestion came last fall from district superintendents as a less painful cut than some others that they could be forced to make. Some districts, for example, are considering closing schools, laying off teachers, and eliminating sports and arts programs. The governor’s office did not provide the names of any superintendents who support the five-day funding cut.

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“We put this forward knowing we were heading into what is clearly the most challenging fiscal environment California has ever faced,” said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for Schwarzenegger’s finance department.

“When you have to put forward a budget that closes a gap of more than $41 billion, criticism is going to be implicit in any proposal, whether in the education area or in health and human services or on the revenue side.

“That’s why, before we came out with this proposal, we wanted to engage the education community at the front end of the process to get their views on how we can try to . . . do the least amount of damage possible,” he said.

Lobbyist Sandy Silberstein, who represents Riverside County’s 23 school districts, noted that districts would not be required to eliminate days. She said the proposal -- along with another that allows restricted funds, such as those in textbook accounts, to be used more freely -- gives school districts greater leeway in deciding how to weather the economic storm.

“What we have said . . . is give us the longest menu of flexible options,” she said. “That is the only way we will survive this.”

The 2009-10 budget is far from finalized, and it is unknown whether the school-year proposal will survive negotiations in Sacramento. But education probably will face major cuts because it makes up about 40% of the state budget.

Currently, the state requires 175 days of school, although an annual fiscal incentive created in 1983 prompted most districts to provide 180 days of instruction.

Many other countries require far more. Indian and Chinese students spend more weeks in the classroom every year than their American counterparts.

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Education advocates have been calling for more days in the American school calendar for decades, notably in “A Nation at Risk,” a 1983 report that called on states to create a 200- to 220-day school year, as well as more instructional time in the day.

Research has consistently shown students, if engaged academically, benefit from more classroom time.

“You don’t need a PhD to understand that the more days students work with teachers, the more they learn,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley.

O’Connell’s fear that districts serving more low-income students or minorities would bear the brunt of the cuts is true in Pasadena, where the district could not afford to pay for the five days, said Pasadena Unified School District Supt. Edwin Diaz.

“It’s a huge step backward and is going in the opposite direction of what we need in this state to close the achievement gap and improve performance for all kids,” he said. “We need more time with the kids.”

In addition to ensuring that today’s generation is prepared to compete in a global economy, educators and others said there is another, more immediate, benefit from requiring students to spend more time in school.

“When you cut days out of school, I guess the question is what are students going to be doing with that time?” asked Chad Heeter, the Indianapolis-based director and editor of “Two Million Minutes,” a 2008 documentary that examined lives and study habits of high school seniors in the United States, India and China. “What [time in school] does community-wide is keep kids busy and occupied and out of trouble.”

Educators also had a more practical concern: Though Sacramento can decide to cut funding for five days of school, each of the state’s 1,054 school districts would be required to renegotiate contracts with unions representing teachers and other employees, including potential pay cuts.

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Joe Farley, superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, said he renegotiated salaries when he headed a San Diego County district.

“It was extremely hard,” he said. “It’s something I would avoid doing again.”

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest, Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said that officials expect to cut $400 million in next year’s budget but that they are hamstrung until legislators approve a budget plan. This week, the district sent layoff notices to 2,300 instructors because of an anticipated shortfall this school year. Cortines implored state leaders to act quickly.

“We cannot do anything until we know what the parameters are that we have to work within,” he said. “That has to come from Sacramento.”

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.

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Schwarzenegger’s budget bust

The governor is looking for funds in all the wrong places, Michael Hiltzik writes. BUSINESS, C1


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