11/06/2014 01:49 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

De Blasio Announces Longer School Day

It seems like all we hear about from Democrats nowadays is economic inequality. In New York City and Philadelphia, my home and college towns, respectively, this issue will be a crucial one during the midterm elections. Indeed, President Obama has called it "defining challenge of our time." And it is: IMF data shows that higher levers of economic inequality in the United States are linked with shorter periods of economic expansion. For all the talk, few politicians are proposing wide-scale solutions to directly address this issue head on. Enter Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio was elected Mayor of NYC with a mandate to fight for economic opportunity across the city. His first year is office was lackluster: its highlights were a new contract for the teachers union, scandal with the NYPD and a rough winter. Nonetheless, de Blasio's recent announcement that his administration will be investing $150 million dollars to keep 94 failing schools open for an extra hour every day represents a substantial step toward reducing income inequality in New York. It's a move that other mayors should consider implementing.

De Blasio's program, which he has labeled the School Renewal Program, will target the bottom 25 percent of city schools, based on graduation rates and performance on state exams. These schools will be labeled "community schools" and will receive additional teachers, guidance councilors and "extra learning opportunities." Though the guidelines for the program are vague, it represents a step in the right direction. Education is widely considered to be the best route to the middle class.

New York could, however, do much better. Extending the school day by one hour across the board would be far more costly, and require negotiations with the teachers union. But it could also yield substantial benefits -- especially in underperforming schools. Hansen and Marcott have quantified the benefit of extra schooling, noting that "an additional 10 days of instruction results in an increase in student performance on state math assessments of just under 0.2 standard deviations. To put that in perspective, the percentage of students passing math assessments falls by about one-third to one-half a percentage point for each day school is closed." It makes sense: if you spend more time in the classroom, there's more time to learn.

Despite strong empirical evidence (and common sense) supporting longer school days, teachers' unions are often the most vocal opponents of such changes. Here's the Democratic conundrum: the party is the face and voice of economic equality and opportunity, but its allies are the major impediment to this goal. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, "our school day is too short, our week is too short, our year is too short," but none of his fellow Democrats has mustered the courage to oppose the unions and get this done.

Even de Blasio, whose vision I support and whose decision will likely benefit many New Yorkers has not had the courage to extend classroom hours. His community schools will be optional and instruction will not be a continuation of traditional classroom learning. This is a mistake. If New York City schools ran from 8-4:30 instead of 8-3:30 (as many private schools do), students would benefit.

Challenging the union takes guts and does not pay political benefits. But if Democrats are serious about resolving economic inequality they need to begin proposing tough solutions -- not just spewing rhetoric when they stump for elections. Even if these proposals fail, at least it will be because the unions vetoed them, not because we didn't try. And when it's the teachers union whose decisions are directly preventing students from learning, as opposed to politicians' lack of political will, maybe voters will finally give politicians a mandate to override their opposition.