This is what we are doing to the children we are supposed to be educating.
Ten years of cutting state funds to local school systems has forced them to reduce school calendars that once were required to be 180 days.
Less than one-third of Georgia’s public school systems — just 57 of them — will be holding classes for 180 days during the 2013-14 school year, according to the state Department of Education.
More than two-thirds of local school systems are cutting instructional days to save on operating expenses and keep from going broke. Nearly one-fourth of the systems — 40 out of 180 — have eliminated more than five days from the 180-day calendar.
Sixteen school systems have cut their calendar to fewer than 170 days. That is a loss of more than 10 days of classroom instruction in a school year.
At the very bottom are small systems in rural counties that don’t have the financial resources of a large suburban system: Webster County has cut back to a 148-day school calendar for this year, Haralson County will operate with a 147-day calendar, and Chattooga County will open its classrooms for a mere 144 days.
That’s the equivalent of cutting six or seven weeks of classroom days from a normal school calendar.
The reason for these cutbacks is money.
When Sonny Perdue took office as governor in the midst of an economic downturn in 2003, he and the legislature balanced the budget in part by reducing the formula funding to local systems. The combined amount of these state cuts for public schools now exceeds $6 billion.
Even after Georgia emerged from that economic downturn, the “austerity cuts” continued. After the Great Recession hit in 2007-08, there was additional pressure to keep cutting state funds for public education.
Many local school boards have tried to make up for the loss of this state funding with the only revenue option available to them: raising the millage rate on property taxes. School boards cannot legally set the rate at higher than 20 mills and many of them have hit or are close to that ceiling.
To help local systems cope with the loss of state money, the legislature gave them the flexibility to reduce the 180-day calendar so long as they added enough minutes or hours to the remaining days to provide the “equivalent” of 180 days of instruction.
A shorter school year reduces operating expenses because systems use less electricity and run their buses for fewer days. But educators say the loss of classroom days will eventually have an adverse impact on student performance.
“You may add a minute to each class and two minutes to lunch, but really, is that going to get you the equivalent amount of instruction you would get from 10 days of school?” state school Superintendent John Barge asked. “We’re going to see it impacting the quality of students and definitely teacher morale.”
“Fewer days to cover the same amount of material means an increased pace, and some kids fall by the wayside,” said Tim Callahan of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “As a former English teacher, I can speak firsthand about writing assignments and the time it takes to correct essays and the need to give feedback to students.”
“I don’t see how you can sustain it,” said Herb Garrett, who recently retired as executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. “Certainly there’s a period of time where you wouldn’t expect to see sudden drop-offs (in student performance), but over the long term I don’t see how we can sustain it.”
One of the top priorities of our elected leaders is to persuade more companies to locate in Georgia and create jobs. They expect to accomplish this, however, by providing a workforce that receives fewer and fewer days of schooling each year.
The state’s political leadership evidently considers it more important to spend $200 million in tax proceeds on a new football stadium for billionaire NFL owner Arthur Blank than to provide enough money to keep our classrooms open for 180 days a year. That’s madness.
“Our economic future is in the classrooms today — shortchanging the young men and women who are in our classes today is shortchanging the state for years to come,” Callahan said.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.