Our Views: Wisconsin lawmakers should kill mandate on school days

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Friday, March 14, 2014

The state Senate passed on a voice vote legislation to repeal a requirement that school districts must hold classes at least 180 days each year. Given that the state still would require minimum instructional hours each year, the Assembly should follow suit.

After all, insufficient state aid is squeezing many school districts, particularly rural ones. Mandates share the blame for district fiscal problems. Legislators could erase this one from the blackboard.

The 180-day rule poses particular problems this year, when brutal weather repeatedly forced schools to close. Some northern districts could reach mid-June before they break for summer. Critics of Senate Bill 589 fear killing the 180-day rule opens the door to longer school days and switching to four-day weeks so districts save on busing and utilities. These opponents say that would harm learning because children have limited attention spans.

In general, however, school boards, administrators and teachers are reasonable and rational. They want our children to get the best education for the available dollars. Yes, rural districts up north might tweak schedules and hold classes four days a few weeks in the dead of winter to trim heating and busing bills. But most educators and the board members we elect understand that a teacher can only hold the attention of Johnny and Janine so long.

If this debate sounds familiar, it should. In 2006, then-Rep. Debi Towns of Janesville authored a bill that cleared the Legislature before then-Gov. Jim Doyle struck it down. Maybe Doyle feared long school days. Or maybe the Democrat rejected the bill because Towns was a Republican.

Back then, Whitewater's district got a waiver from the state Department of Public Instruction to hold classes fewer days, and Parkview in Orfordville also sought a multiyear waiver. Whitewater jumped through hoops to get that OK. It did so out of concerns about scheduling six half days for teacher training. Holding classes just in the morning counts as a full day, yet educators know many students lack focus on those days, knowing classes end early. Splitting those into three days of classes and three of training could improve learning and save money on busing and serving lunches fewer days.

At the time, John Eyster, now a political blogger on The Gazette website, worked as a legislative lobbyist for Janesville's district. He reasoned that districts shouldn't have to play “Captain may I” with DPI and that school boards could use common sense and make sound decisions without paternalism.

Eyster is among a wide range of supporters for SB 589. Even DPI backs the bill. A department spokesman testified at a Senate committee hearing that the 180-day rule gets more waiver requests than any other mandate.

Call your representative and urge support for this legislation. The Assembly should pass and send it to Gov. Walker to sign before lawmakers close the session and start their long campaign season. If they do so soon, the repeal might help districts scrambling to make up lost days this year. This is another in a long line of issues in which trust in local control is best for all concerned.

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