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Oklahoma Bill Ties Increased Funding to a Longer School Year

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Some 30,000 Oklahoma educators, parents, and students descended on the state Capitol in Oklahoma City last week to demand more funding for public education. Ranked 49th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in per-pupil spending, and also teacher pay, Oklahoma schools have been struggling with large class sizes, taped-up textbooks, and recruiting and retaining teachers who can find higher-paying jobs in surrounding states.

"In 2014, we are still operating on a 2008 school budget," Linda Hampton, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, told me. "We've had an increase of 40,000 students and a decrease of 1,500 teachers. Things have hit a critical point."

A bill approved by the state Senate Appropriations Committee on April 2 could provide schools with some of the money they need—but it comes with an interesting twist. The measure, authored by two Republicans, Rep. Lee Denney and Sen. Jim Halligan, would create a fund that provides schools with an additional $600 million over the next decade on the condition that the schools add one instructional day for every $60 million the educational system gets.

The state's public schools would receive $29.9 million a year from the fund for the first three years, then $59.8 million every year until the $600 million total is reached. That means schools have to add their first extra day in year three, giving them two years to plan. Then they will be on the hook to add a day a year after that. If the plan is fully implemented, Oklahoma schools will add nine days to the school year.

Sen. Halligan told me that legislators included the additional time requirement because Oklahoma is implementing new, more rigorous academic state standards designed to ensure students are prepared for college and careers. (Oklahoma adopted the Common Core Standards Standards for English/language arts and mathematics in 2010, but the state House and Senate recently passed legislation that would replace those standards with state-designed standards.) 

"We are putting in place higher expectations," he said. "Therefore, schools need additional time to meet those expectations."

The state currently requires a minimum school year of 180 days, five of which can be used for teacher meetings, and 1,080 hours of instruction. Oklahoma educators are not opposed to adding more time to the school year, according to Richard Caram, an assistant state superintendent. "It's always valuable to give children more days of instruction or minutes of instruction during the day if it's quality, meaningful instruction, and so it is a good thing," he told me.

Caram noted that many Oklahoma schools have already extended school time, some using money under the federal School Improvement Grants program—which requires 15 days to be added to the school year—or the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center program. Since 2011, the Oklahoma City school system, the state's largest, has operated on a year-round calendar that provides more instructional time than the traditional calendar. And this year, in response to implementation of Oklahoma's Reading Sufficiency Act, which prevents 3rd graders who score "unsatisfactory" on the reading portion of the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test from being promoted, some schools have added time to provide additional reading instruction, Caram said.

Hampton of the Oklahoma Education Association said the additional time requirement was recently added to the legislation, H.B. 2642, and her organization needs to study the costs of adding more days to the school calendar before the group can say whether it supports the idea.

"It's a work in progress," she said. "But at least the door is open to be able to talk about school funding."

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