What's Next on Longer School Days?

10/31/2011 11:51 am ET | Updated Dec 31, 2011

It's ironic that Mayor Emanuel's announcement that Chicago charter schools are lining up to get cash for a longer school day was made at Chicago International Charter School in Washington Park.

That school, part of a network run by one of the city's largest charter operators, already has a 7-1/2 hour day -- yet still lags behind in terms of student achievement, as Catalyst Chicago reported.

Before going further, let me say that I believe a longer school day is overdue in Chicago, and that the mayor and Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard are right to put it at the top of their agenda. A longer day will undoubtedly be imposed next school year throughout the city.

But at this point, politics on all sides has obscured public discussion on the most important point: Simply imposing a longer day is not going to magically raise test scores. If it were that easy, schools across the country wouldn't be in the shape they're in.

Chicago International in Washington Park -- one of Chicago's more impoverished neighborhoods -- is evidence of that. (The school is now undergoing something of a 'turnaround' to try and improve student learning.)

As for the rest of Chicago Public Schools, what needs to happen during that extra 90 minutes to make it productive? And how will it be paid for, given the district's dire financial straits? Those questions have gotten virtually no attention because of the wrangling that started when Mayor Emanuel and CEO Brizard decided to go full-steam-ahead with a plan to offer regular schools cash to adopt a longer day now.

Did they really expect that the Chicago Teachers Union wouldn't fight for its contract? Sure, fighting for it left the union open to charges that it doesn't care about kids, and Emanuel has made that charge more than once. But that's what unions are for, and in this economic climate, pro-union sentiment seems to be gaining traction with a lot of the public.

Meanwhile, the district's move left it open, in turn, to charges of unfair labor practices and union-bashing. As it turned out, those accusations proved to be more than just fiery rhetoric. The state's labor board issued a complaint in the matter -- something it does only rarely -- and now the Illinois Attorney General is poised to seek a court injunction against CPS.

In the meantime, giving another $5 million to charters isn't going to sit well with parents and activists who want more resources for neighborhood schools. And the fact that many charters are not doing significantly better, despite having longer days than regular public schools -- well, don't be surprised when charter opponents, including the teachers union, seize on that as part of the debate.

Meanwhile, the crucial questions are still unanswered: What happens next year when schools get another 90 minutes, and where will the money come from?