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Originally published August 23, 2012 at 6:03 PM | Page modified August 23, 2012 at 9:43 PM

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Op-ed: Shorter school year shortchanges students

The state Board of Education will consider allowing waivers for school districts to shorten the academic year. A shorter year would shortchange our students.

Special to The Seattle Times

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THIS week, the Washington state Board of Education will begin seeking feedback on easing rules for school districts to shorten their school year. Unfortunately, the board is putting the interests of adults ahead of the interests of students.

State law requires -- and most school districts provide -- 180 days of schooling for students. It is a fundamental part of the state constitution's definition of basic education that a system of public schools be open to provide time for student learning.

And while it's true that "seat time" isn't the purpose of education, the research is clear that time spent with teachers does lead to student learning. Even slight reductions in the number of school days affect achievement. In addition, studies show longer summers contribute to learning loss.

Despite intuition and the research, however, the law permits the state Board of Education to grant waivers from the requirement to offer 180 days, and more than 80 of the state's 295 school districts sought waivers to lower the services to their students and communities.

Why? Because it serves the interests of adults.

Union officials representing school employees try to negotiate higher wages, but sometimes levy funds cannot be stretched far enough to meet their demands. When additional pay cannot be achieved, an alternative approach is to bargain for a lighter workload.

But how does one lighten the workload in a school? Simple -- send the students home. The pay remains the same, but the students are cheated out of the full number of school days with their educators.

Districts using these waivers will be quick to note that they probably are still providing 1,000 hours of time to students in the reduced schedule. But which is more valuable -- a whole day of school or an extra two minutes added on to the remaining days?

Parents and communities should be indignant that student learning is being placed at risk in some districts. The casual ease with which student services are cut demonstrates one of the problems of collective bargaining -- students and families do not have a voice at the table.

Taxpayers should also be indignant. Certificated employees earn an average annual compensation package of more than $60,000, and administrators average more than $100,000 per year. For this annual professional salary, students are presumed to be served 180 days.

It's time families and taxpayers started demanding that students' interests come first in setting the schedule. In an era when the challenge of schooling is greater and factors are crowding out learning time in the schedule, it makes no sense to take any action that lowers the services to students.

The state Board of Education is the state entity charged with looking out for the interests of students and assuring the quality of the system of public schools. The board had the opportunity to limit waivers to cases where student services are increased overall.

Instead, it decided to relax the rules for granting waivers to shorten the school year. The new rules will create a quicker, easier and less scrutinized process for trimming student services.

The public is now invited to comment. Send a note to Ben Rarick, executive director of the state Board of Education (email: ben.rarick@k12.wa.us; mail: PO Box 47206 Olympia, WA 98504).

Jami Lund is the Education Reform Fellow for the Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank in Olympia. He manages the Local School Innovation Project.

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