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New report warns shorter school year would hurt low-income, other students

October 31, 2011 |  7:04 pm

A report released Monday by a statewide advocacy group warns that low-income students, students of color and English learners will be disproportionately harmed if school districts in California move to further shorten the academic calender due to budget cuts.

The report by the nonprofit The Education Trust-West cites research findings that extending instructional time leads to academic gains and narrows the achievement gap for low-income students and struggling schools. Yet two years ago, amid a floundering economy, the state allowed districts to reduce the calender from 180 to 175 days.

And in June, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation -– AB 114 -- that permits districts to further shorten the school year by up to seven additional days to accommodate a $1.8-billion cut in school funding that would be triggered if tax revenues fall $2 billion below projections.

If districts follow through, California could have among the shortest school calenders in the nation, and significantly shorter than countries such as the Netherlands, with 200 instructional days, and Japan with 243.

“Taking away days impacts all students, but particulary in a state like ours, has the higest impact on our  highest needs students,” said Ed Trust-West Executive Director Arun Ramanathan. “We should be restoring on a state level the requirement for a full school year and should do what is necessary at the district and state level to target funds to make that happen.”

The report cited a survey of nearly 400 districts by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, in which 57% reported shortening the school calender in 2010-2011. Meanwhile, a March study by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access found that more than half of principals from schools serving low- and medium-income students reported cutting instructional days compared to only 25% of those in districts with high levels of local revenue.

AB 114, which, among other provisions, prohibits teachers from being laid off midyear, has divided the education community. To shorten the school calender, districts would have to negotiate furlough days with local teachers unions.

Even in that eventuality, a shorter school year covers only about two-thirds of the cuts schools would sustain if the midyear trigger is pulled, according to several school board associations in a September letter to Gov. Brown expressing their concern about the effect of the legislation.

State education leaders are also worried about the potential consequences of further trimming the school year.

"It would be catastrophic,” said Erin Gabel, director of government affairs for the Department of Education. “We’re talking about basic access to students’ instructional time.”

-- Carla Rivera