Senate votes to shorten required school year

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Schoolchildren in Mississippi could go to school five fewer days a year under a bill passed Wednesday by the Senate.
Responding to the state’s continuing budget woes, senators passed a proposal offered by Senate Education Chair Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, to let districts reduce the required number of classroom days from 180 to 175. The vote was 39-8.
“It is a way to save money without laying people off,” said Sen. Doug Davis, R-Hernando, who voted for the proposal. “It is giving districts an option.”
A small but vocal group of senators opposed the measure, saying Mississippi, which is at the bottom or near the bottom in academic performance, could not afford to give up instructional time.
“I hope members of this chamber realize what an extraordinary step backward we are taking,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.
Some senators said that the state’s school superintendents support the move.
But state Superintendent Tom Burnham and Tupelo Superintendent Randy Shaver said they do not.
“We protect the instructional time for children,” said Burnham. “The single most significant factor in a child’s academic success is time on task. Why cut days and take away time?”
Shaver said he understands the budget problems, but added, “We are already behind what the rest of the world is doing” in terms of number of school days. “That is why they are outperforming our students. We need to maintain, not take a step backward.”
DeSoto Superintendent Milton Kuykendall said he would not mind a reduction in the number of school days.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to it. We have to cut something,” he said.
But there are questions about whether the bill will become law.
It now goes to the House, which would not pass a more modest proposal supported by Burnham to give school districts the flexibility to furlough teachers and other staff during scheduled professional development days as a mechanism to save money.
House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said he supports giving districts the authority to furlough teachers and other staff during the current budget crunch, but he opposes cutting the number of school days.
“We have the lowest test scores and some of the highest dropout rates,” he said. “There already is a poor perception of our schools in the rest of the nation. What kind of signal does it send to the rest of the country?”
Under the Senate proposal, districts would be required to furlough teachers two of the seven professional development days and would have the option to impose three additional furlough days.
Teachers would not be cut in pay for the five-day reduction in the school year. The savings from a reduction from 180 days to 175 days would come from utilities and fuel.
Under current law, the minimum number of school days is 180 and teachers must attend an additional seven days for staff development.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.