School Days – Just Fewer of Them

School Days – Just Fewer of Them

How to respond to the Wall Street Journal’s story on four day school weeks a a solution to the state fiscal crisis in the U.S.? The economist in me says wow, `that`s a great inventive solution` while at the same time wondering if its a short sighted one that will lead to poorly educated kids and weakened productivity in future. I`m trying to keep my parent-reaction out of it, but I`m also wondering just how everyone is going to handle childcare on the fifth day of the workweek, which I imagine isn`t just going to disappear for most people.

Let`s back up a bit and look at exactly what is going on. The U.S. recession may be lifting, but the pressure on state and school board budgets is not.  Revenues have been slashed, debts have risen and budgets are thin, and will maybe get thinner. Schools boards face a sad reality of cutting costs or cutting services or maybe doing both.

Hence the four day school week.

As the story says, at present less than 1 percent of all school boards are going this route in the U.S., but others are wondering whether or not it might be a solution to a fiscal hole that isn`t going away.

The savings are pretty nice for the schools who have tried it out. Kids still generally go to school for the same number of hours (adding on about 1 hour and 40 minutes to each of the other four days) so teacher salaries stay the same (which they would, given that anything else would mean some very tricky negotiations with teacher unions). Other costs though – buses, custodial staff, utilities etc. – fall sharply when school is out on the fifth day.

So let`s take the implications one at a time.

First, on the fiscal side of things, this is a pretty brilliant move.

Whatever the drawbacks, it is saving some districts big chunks of money, and that`s not only a good thing but a necessary thing. The atermath of the recession is going to be years of fiscal austerity, which roughly translated means school closings unless someone can think of something better. So the four day week is pretty inventive.

On the productivity front, I`m not such a fan.

Do kids learn as much if they go to school for a longer time each day? Some kids do, I`m sure, but I imagine a lot would find it too much structured time.  No one seems to have done the math on this yet, but I`d imagine more kids would get left behind. So its hard to see how the whole thing could be good for the future economy.

And okay I`ll indulge the parent side of myself, but only because there are economic implications of all that too.

On balance, I don`t know that the four day week will really mean that much to parents.  Yes, yes, I know that in the short term everyone would have to juggle things to get child care for the fifth day, and that a lot of schedules would get pretty messed up. Over time, though, the existing services would adjust to the new norms and more and more childcare providers (and sports camps and dance camps and whatever else) would become available on the fifth day, just as services are available through the summer. There would be pressure for people to pay for them though – and maybe pressure for governments to provided some sort of subsidized care or a a subsidy for care – which would negate some of the savings.

Over time, too, I wonder if a four day school week would eventually let parents negotiate a four day workweek. Maybe not immediately, when the U.S. unemployment rate is still hovering near 10 percent and no one can negotiate anything, but sometime in the immediately, when

But decisions over education shouldn`t depend on childcare arrangements – and they shouldn`t depend on fiscal considerations either.

If only.

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