A House panel voted earlier this week to dangle more money in front of Arizona schools to convince them to add an extra 20 days of instruction.
HB 2488 would give participating schools an extra 8 percent state aid if they agree to have classes at least 200 days a year. Current law sets the school year at 180 days.
School districts already can extend their year. And the state provides an extra 5 percent.
But Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, said that incentive has proven insufficient to convince more than a handful of school districts to go along.
He acknowledged that an 8 percent boost still may not cover all the costs, ranging from bus transportation and utilities to compensating the teachers for a year that becomes 11 percent longer. But Boyer said it may be just enough to push some districts over the edge.
Potentially more significant, HB 2488 would eliminate the requirement that such decisions be made for the entire district. Instead, a school board could decide to extend the year only on campuses where students may need extra help.
Boyer cited the testimony of Jeff Smith, superintendent of the Balsz Elementary School District in Phoenix, which has had its five schools on a 200-day schedule for four years.
At the time, two of the schools were graded as underperforming or failing. And Smith said about one out of every three of its students that went on to high school eventually dropped out.
Balsz agreed to take the extra 5 percent to add two weeks on the front end of the school year and two weeks at the back.
“I am pleased to inform you that Balsz is not only succeeding, we are thriving,’’ he told the House Education Committee.
“Where once only 20 to 30 percent of our students were succeeding on state tests, now to 60 to 80 percent of our students are demonstrating mastery,’’ he said. And he said the rate at which students are found to be proficient in English has more than doubled.
“It is common sense that the sooner students master English, the sooner they can master complex learning standards,’’ Smith said. He compared the school year to “summer school for all’’ rather than just those who seek extra help.
Not everyone on the committee was enthusiastic about a stronger financial incentive for an extended school year. Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, said he does not doubt that more time in class translates into better test scores.
“It also puts stresses on families when they have a shorter vacation time than is traditional,’’ he said.
Allen acknowledged the concept of a long summer vacation is a holdover from the time when children were needed on the farm to help with the crops.
“But maybe our culture towards having a summer vacation with your family hasn’t,’’ he said. Allen also rejected the idea that time spent with families over the summer, away from academics, leads to what some academics have called the “summer slide,’’ with students forgetting by fall what they learned just the past year.
“Education does start at the home,’’ he said. “Sometimes the best education you can get is summer with the family.’’
Boyer said nothing in his legislation takes away family time — at least not by itself.
“This is optional,’’ he said, with each school board making its own decisions. And Boyer said if parents who disagree with a decision for a longer school year are free to enroll their children in another district that sticks with the 180-day format.
One unresolved issue could be the availability of state funds.
Boyer said just the six participating school districts, all small, now are costing the state an extra $2.3 million at the 5 percent bump. While he said the legislation is designed to boost that — there are more than 200 districts in the state and more than 2,000 schools — Boyer said he doubts that every district will go along, even with the promise of extra cash.
“It is going to be somewhat of a burden on school districts,’’ he said, which will have to pony up some additional local funds. “So I don’t think there’ll be a huge participation.’’
Boyer said the measure is crafted in a way to let the state Board of Education reject any school’s request if the funding proves insufficient.