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Wisconsin Senate OKs Bill Allowing Shorter School Year

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Tight budgets—and the high cost of battling winter—may result in Wisconsin educators getting more control over their school calendar. On March 11, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill that eliminates the state requirement that school districts teach for 180 days in order to receive state funding. The Republican-sponsored bill, designed to help Wisconsin school districts save money, now goes before the state Assembly.

Currently, Wisconsin schools don't have the flexibility to make up for time lost during polar-vortex-driven school closures by lengthening a few school days. They have to tack on additional days during the early summer to meet the 180-day quota.

Students in the La Crosse public schools, for example, will linger in school three extra days this summer to make up for snow days, the La Crosse Tribune reports.

"Reducing districtwide transportation for just a single day would save thousands of dollars," Jerry Fiene, the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, told The Associated Press. "Scheduling fewer days of school during the coldest winter months would again save thousands of dollars in utility costs."

Currently, schools must also instruct students for a minimum number of hours per year: at least 437 hours in kindergarten, 1,050 hours in grades 1-6, and 1,137 hours in grades 7-12. The Senate bill would keep that requirement. At the same time, the measure would allow schools to schedule up to 35 hours of instruction on Saturdays.

Under the measure, conceivably a school could choose to operate for, say, 160 days with longer school days. It also would allow the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to fund courses outside regular and summer-school hours.

The state education agency and the Wisconsin Association of School Boards support the bill, as do many school districts.

But some local school systems want even more flexibility than the bill would provide. Twenty-six districts in western Wisconsin have applied for a waiver from the required Sept. 1 school year start date in 2015-16 so they can begin earlier. The Coulee Region districts have proposed starting on Aug. 12 and ending June 8 so they can add three week-long "intercessions" devoted to course planning, teacher training, and individualized learning for students.

"It gives everyone a chance to take a deep breath," La Crosse Superintendent Randy Nelson told the La Crosse Tribune.

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