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Don't Bet on Savings from a Four-Day School Week, ECS Says

In this bad-news budget era, school districts are trying all sorts of strategies to save money. One of the more far-reaching steps is the move to a four-day school week, which has been tried by as many as 120 districts in 17 states.

You might assume that chopping one-fifth off the school week would guarantee districts an average savings of one-fifth of their costs. And you'd be 100 percent wrong, explains Michael Griffith of the Education Commission of the States, in a new analysis.

On the whole, promises of savings from moving to a four-day week are vastly overstated, he concludes. Using national and school district data, he finds that doing so produces a maximum savings of only 5 percent from school systems' total budgets—and that districts that moved to a four-day week experienced actual savings of only between .4 percent and 2.5 percent.

During my reporting last year on the impact of the economic downturn on schools, I spoke with officials in some Nevada districts that said they'd managed to save money by lopping a day off of the work-week. Many of those districts were in rural parts of the state, a long way from Las Vegas or Reno.

Getting students to sporting events, in towns that were three or four hours away by bus, costs a lot of money, and district officials said they saved because they didn't have to hire substitutes to fill in for their teachers and other staff who had to take most or all of a school day off work to travel with the team to a rival town.

But typically, says Griffith, there just aren't that many savings to be had. Why not?

One reason is that the savings on teacher salaries and benefits tend to be minimal—just .03 percent of total district budgets. That's because shifting to a four-day week still requires instructional staff to work the same amount of hours, spread over four days, not five. (I would assume this is because of state mandates on instructional time.) Districts also report saving little money on the costs of non-classroom employees, the ECS report says.

Similarly, projected savings on transportation costs often don't pan out. That's partly because some school activities, such as those involving extracurricular events of special needs students, still require busing on the theoretical off day.

Given the minuscule benefits, why do some districts move to four-day schedules? In some cases, it's because during tough economic times, some savings are better than nothing. And a district that chops a couple million dollars off its costs, notes Griffith, might be saving jobs.

"When faced with a choice of reducing the school week by one day or letting 70 teachers go," he writes, "it is easy to see why some administrators have chosen to go with a four-day week."

Budget conditions in the states are improving, but slowly. So it's likely that shrinking the school week will stay on the table for some districts in the near term.

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