Three years ago today, western Wisconsin was blanketed with a heavy snowfall.
Even though it was April 4, it marked the seventh snow day for the Chippewa Falls school district. Because the district had only budgeted for two snow days in its calendar, students wound up going to class an additional five days in 2014 — with the final day falling on Friday, June 13.
However, under a new proposal tucked into Gov. Scott Walker’s state budget, makeup days because of the weather could be a thing of the past.
The measure would eliminate a requirement that districts must provide a certain number of hours of instruction annually. Currently, schools must provide at least 1,050 instructional hours to students in the first through sixth grades and 1,137 hours for students in grades seven through 12. Kindergarten students must have at least 437 hours. Instead, the state would focus on students meeting and exceeding standards on statewide testing.
Three years ago, the state eliminated the rule requiring 180 days of instruction, instead switching to the hourly requirement. Under Walker’s proposal, Wisconsin would be the first state to have neither a daily nor hourly requirement.
Tom McCarthy, spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction, said his agency is still evaluating the policy idea and hasn’t decided yet to firmly support or reject the measure.
“We feel the answer is more time in school is needed, not less,” McCarthy said. “We are still looking at how this impacts schools.”
McCarthy said it wouldn’t definitely end snow makeup days, but that would be possible under the way the policy is worded.
However, Eau Claire schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck had concerns with the proposal.
“I’m worried about the loss of that requirement,” Hardebeck said. “It’s our most precious commodity — instructional hours with students. It’s a minimum number. It creates a level playing field for students across the state. I think we need to protect that across the state.”
Hardebeck added that it was too early to say if she would not make up snow days.
Chippewa Falls schools Superintendent Heidi Taylor-Eliopoulos supports the measure.
“This is an example of legislation that increases local control and allows local boards to make decisions reflective of their community values,” Taylor-Eliopoulos said. “However, this proposal would also make Wisconsin the only state with no minimum requirements for hours or minutes. We can only speculate the long-term impact the absence of minimum requirements could have on education in our state.”
Menomonie schools Superintendent Joe Zydowsky echoed her comments, saying he liked the idea of school boards deciding the length of the school year.
“I think local control for local school districts is a good idea,” Zydowsky said. “Having local school boards make that decision is a good idea.”
Zydowsky acknowledged that it might mean the district won’t attempt to make up a snow day.
“I don’t know how that would affect us at this time — it would be a school district decision,” he said.
He declined to comment on how this might save the district money.
Jeff Mastin, Lake Holcombe schools superintendent, said his district budgeted for 2½ snow days, but they had three this year, so they added another instructional day, on June 1. Mastin wasn’t sure if the district would not try to make up snow days in the future, saying he wants to make sure students are meeting the DPI standards.
“You need to look at what is best for your district and your students,” Mastin said. “I think we need to provide them with the best education possible.”
Mastin said some small districts might even consider switching to four-day school weeks as a means to save money, but that hasn’t been discussed in his two years there.
Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, also expressed concerns. While he said his organization is “fundamentally in favor of local control for school boards,” he said he isn’t sure how elementary schools would look without the hourly requirement.
“I think parents have certain expectations on keeping kids on task,” Rossmiller said. “It serves a custodial function.”
Rossmiller said he understands districts wanting local control, particularly if they are routinely meeting state testing guidelines.
“But what about schools that are struggling, and have a harder-to-educate population?” Rossmiller said. “But people argue the state report cards will take care of that.”
State Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, is an author of proposed legislation to eliminate a state law that bans districts from starting school before Sept. 1. Bernier said she favors the change because it gives local control. The proposal to remove the required minimum of instructional hours can be found on page 367 of the state budget request, she said.
“My gut feeling is they are looking for competencies (in state testing results), and not total hours,” Bernier said. “The number of hours (of instructional time) is somewhat arbitrary, because it includes break time and lunch time. One size fits all doesn’t always work.”
However, Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, said getting rid of the requirement was a bad idea.
“I think there is flexibility the way it is, so I don’t understand why you would get rid of it,” Wachs said. “I think we need standards. We have to know how many hours of education everyone is getting.”
The proposal also would eliminate a requirement that virtual charter schools have to ensure that teachers are available for direct pupil instruction for a minimum number of hours each year.
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