LLOYD GRAY: Students need to be in school more, not less

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi is at or near the bottom of most measures of educational achievement in a nation that isn’t exactly setting the world on fire when it comes to student performance.
That makes what the state Senate did the other day particularly disturbing. Senators voted 39-8 to reduce the minimum number of required school days in Mississippi from 180 to 175.
Allowing five fewer days in school simply isn’t appropriate when Mississippi students and their teachers are struggling to catch up with their peers in the nation and around the world.
Senators approached this not as educational policy but as a money-saving move to deal with the budget crisis. Reducing school time and even forcing teachers to take unpaid furloughs on what previously would have been training days – also included in the Senate bill – were advanced as solutions preferable to teachers losing jobs.
That’s why the idea apparently had considerable support among superintendents and teachers around the state. It’s also on the table in other states facing the same budget issues.
It’s still wrong-headed. As the handful of Senate opponents argued, it conveys a message opposite from the one Mississippi needs to be sending, both internally and externally. Kids should be in school more, not less.
America’s chief economic competitors – China and India – have much longer school years than we do. Japan’s schools go year round, with several short breaks. These and other countries that are outperforming American students not only go to school more days, their school days are longer, and even where there are summer breaks the schools are still in use.
Most states in the U.S. require 180 school days, a few less and some more. Our school schedule with an extended summer break is a holdover from the agrarian era when children were needed as farm hands and has no rational basis today. It’s entirely about tradition – the way we’ve always done it.
It has also developed a strong economic constituency among tourism and summer recreational interests. Witness the earlier attempt in the Legislature this year to move the start of school back from early August to September, a bill pushed by Gulf Coast tourism businesses.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, one of the few Obama administration officials who gets high marks from Republicans as well as Democrats, is insistent that America needs to completely rethink our school calendar or risk our students falling even farther behind.
In Mississippi the need is intensified because we have so much catching up to do. Tupelo Superintendent Randy Shaver, apparently in the minority among his colleagues, thinks the shorter school year is a bad idea. “The single most significant factor in a child’s academic success is time on task,” Shaver told the Daily Journal last week. “Why cut days and take away time?”
To save money, proponents would say, which answers the question about whether the budget cuts the state’s schools face will affect the quality of education students receive.
There’s simply little question that they will have an impact, whether through a shortened school year, fewer teachers and larger classes, or a reduced variety of academic and extracurricular offerings. Some districts will be in worse shape than others as the full force of budget cuts is felt next year and the next, but all will feel some pain.
At what point will we decide that Mississippi can’t afford to stand by and let it happen – that somehow, we have to find additional revenue?
Likely not any time soon. Next year is a state election year, after all. Tax increases are political timebombs.
Or are they? Phil Hardwick of Mississippi State’s Stennis Institute of Government said back in January at the Northeast Mississippi Economic Symposium that polls show Mississippians oppose tax increases for any reason – except for education.
That’s something for legislators to ponder as they consider more budget cuts and backward steps for Mississippi students already the inheritors of a historical legacy of educational neglect.
In the meantime, the House should keep the kids in school and on task by letting the Senate bill die.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.