11/17/2011 04:25 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2012

California Budget Shortfall Heightens Threat Of Shorter School Year

This story comes to us courtesy of California's EdSource Extra.

The prospect of many California public school students experiencing a shorter school year was heightened by the release on Wednesday of a grim report from the Legislative Analyst's Office predicting a severe budget shortfall.

The bad news comes just as several districts were able to restore days they had previously trimmed from their instructional calendar, according to a just-completed EdSource survey of the state's 30 largest districts.

EdSource found that 18 of the state's 30 largest districts still have the once-standard 180-day instructional year. Eight of those districts restored days this school year. A dozen have less than a 180-day year, with nine of them having the 175-day minimum.

In 2008, the Legislature gave districts the option of reducing the school year to 175 days as a way to manage state-imposed budget cuts. Under legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in June, if revenues declined by $2 billion or more this year, school districts' budgets would be cut, and schools would be given the right to reduce their instructional calendar to 168 days this year.

Typically, the way a school district shortens its school year is by giving teachers unpaid furlough days. With the $2 billion shortfall now a real possibility, any reduction in the school calendar would have to be negotiated with teachers' unions.

A school year of 168 days would put California behind every state except Colorado and Michigan, although several states calculate their school year in hours not days, so comparing can be difficult.

It would also put the state behind many industrialized countries. Australia, Netherlands and Singapore, for example, offer a school year of 200 days. Korea's school year is 220 days, and Switzerland's is 225. In addition, recent cutbacks in summer school programs as documented in an earlier EdSource survey has further reduced instructional time in the United States.

Some districts told EdSource that they would have to reopen negotiations with their unions to revise contracts already agreed to if the automatic trigger were to take effect. Others, such as Stockton Unified, are already negotiating with their teachers' unions as to what will happen if the district experiences mid-year cuts in state funding. "The main thing on the table is furlough days," said Julie Penn, a deputy superintendent in Stockton.

It is not yet a done deal that districts will shrink their school year. For cuts to happen, the Department of Finance must issue a projection by the middle of next month similar to the Legislative Analyst's. The Legislature could also act to change the way the cuts are imposed, but that would require approval from Gov. Brown.

But it seems increasingly likely that budget reductions of some kind will have to be made, as Director of Finance Ana Matosantos asserted yesterday. If school cuts get imposed as called for in last June's budget legislation, districts could try to trim programs in any number of ways in lieu of shortening the school year. However, cutting school days yields significant savings, which makes it more appealing to school boards in lieu of chipping away at a variety of school programs.

Whatever occurs, it will be painful, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a statement yesterday.

"If the Legislative Analyst's forecast proves correct, mid-year cuts will bring yet another painful blow to California's schools," Torlakson said.

How does California's school year compare with other states? See this report from the Education Commission of the States. For a chart on the length of the instructional year in California's largest thirty districts, see this EdSource report.

Louis Freedberg is EdSource's executive director and looks at new strategies for closing the achievement gap, the impact of the current economic crisis on school performance, and developing new ways to engage Californians in the education crisis facing the state. Sue Frey is a program associate at EdSource. She researches and writes parent guides, issue briefs, voter guides, articles for EdSource and reports and informational material. Read more of their work, and other pieces, at EdSource.