KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Amber Bramble had to scramble to arrange summer plans for her 5- and 7-year-old daughters after their suburban Kansas City school district gutted its summer school program this spring.
Her daughters were among about 2,500 of the Raymore-Peculiar district's 6,000 students who enrolled for free last summer in a program that combined traditional subjects with enrichment classes like music. But with state funding uncertain, the district decided to focus this year on about 800 students who either need to make up credits to graduate or are struggling to keep up with classmates.
Across the country, districts are cutting summer school because it's just too expensive to keep. The cuts started when the recession began and have worsened, affecting more children and more essential programs that help struggling students.
And in districts like Raymore-Peculiar, although lawmakers ultimately decided to maintain summer school funding, they made the decision so late in the session that many administrators already had eliminated or scaled back the programs.
The cuts come even as President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan call for longer school days and shorter summer breaks. But in many states districts cutting summer school outnumber those using stimulus money to expand their offerings.
"At a time when we need to work harder to close achievement gaps and prepare every child for college and career, cutting summer school is the wrong way to go," Duncan said in a written statement. "These kids need more time, not less."
With the Raymore-Peculiar district trimming its program, Bramble's daughters were unable to participate.
"I think it gets them out of the rhythm," she said. "You lose the momentum."
An American Association of School Administrators survey found that 34 percent of respondents are considering eliminating summer school for the 2010-11 school year. That's a rate that has roughly doubled each year, from 8 percent in 2008-09 to 14 percent in 2009-10.
Noelle Ellerson, a public policy analyst for the group who managed the study, said the cuts illustrate how strapped school districts are.
Experts say studies show summer break tends to widen the achievement gap between poor students and their more affluent peers whose parents can more easily afford things like educational vacations, camps and sports teams.
On average, low-income children fall between two and three months behind in reading skills over the summer while their middle-income peers stagnate or make very slight gains, said Ron Fairchild, chief executive officer of the Baltimore-based National Summer Learning Association.
He said both low- and higher-income students lose ground in math.
"Most people generally think summer is a great time for kids to be kids, a time for something different, a time for all kinds of exploration and enrichment," Fairchild said. "Our mythology about summer learning really runs counter to the reality of what this really is like for kids in low-income communities and for their families when this faucet of public support shuts off."
The cuts are not isolated to Missouri. In New York, the East Aurora Union Free School District in suburban Buffalo is dropping a summer program that had served several dozen struggling first- to sixth-graders, said Superintendent Jim Bodziak.
In Indiana, the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation, located across the river from Louisville, Ky., suspended its traditional summer school. It had offered enrichment courses as well as classes for kindergarten to 12th-graders who were falling behind their classmates. But this year it will only offer online classes for high-schoolers needing to make up credits to graduate.
In financially strapped California, summer cutbacks continue this year, with the Pasadena Unified School District among those paring back its program. The district is keeping its summer classes for high school students needing to make up credits to graduate but canceling other summer programs.
"I know they are struggling with trying to put in summer school," said Pam Slater, a California Department of Education spokeswoman. "Many at the local level are limited to those who need tutoring to pass the high school exit exam. I know a lot of the subjects I used to take in summer school aren't offered because of the funding situation."
In Missouri, the talk of cuts has been a jolt because of the program's popularity. Last year, 480 out of 523 school districts offered summer school, serving about 34 percent of the state's total K-12 enrollment, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Fairchild of the National Summer Learning Association said he was not aware of another state that has that high of a summer school participation percentage.
For years, Missouri districts actually made money offering summer school because of the way the state funded it. Some districts offered incentives – like gift cards – so students would attend in greater numbers.
But that ended a few years back, and this year some lawmakers wanted to pare back state funding for summer school significantly because of budget problems. The cuts didn't win approval, but the issue could return.
Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association, said education funding is still at risk, especially since the state budget director has said $350 million in cuts will need to be made before the budget's approved, which should happen in mid-June.
Should there be cuts in basic funding for k-12 schools, state funding for summer school would take the same hit as would classes offered during the regular school term. And next year doesn't look any better.
"I sadly suspect that the funding for summer school will be eliminated by next year," said Jeff Kyle, superintendent of the Raymore-Peculiar district. "I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think I am."