A shorter school year possible?

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 3, 2003

Alabama State Representative Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) has authored a bill that, if it passes, could make Alabama's public school children very happy, but might give their parents some problems.

The bill, HB16, is called the No Child Left Behind Parental Notification Compliance Act of 2003, and it would, if left unamended, shorten the school year, with classes beginning no earlier than August 18 and ending no later than June, adding two to four weeks to summer vacation.

"That's not a whole lot different than what we do now," said Covington County School Superintendent Ronnie Driver . "We went back August 15. We get out a little after (June 1)."

Driver did not feel the legislature should have the right set the school year for the school system.

"I think that ought to be a local decision as to when each school should start their year," he said. "In different systems, I can see how it would affect one one way and another one another way. I certainly don't think there ought to be a legislative act to require local boards to do that. I think that should be a local decision."

According to Rep. Craig's office, under the act, students would attend the same number of days of school, but compacting the year would offer several benefits, including ending the first semester before winter break and reducing the need for students to spend the holidays studying for end-of-semester tests.

Another benefit, the bill's author states, is financial.

"The early August trend also has had a detrimental effect on school finances in several well documented cases," said Ford, who said the Texas chief fiscal officer noted that the state's public school system spent as much as $10 million more in higher utility bills in the year 2000 due to early start dates, and the state's tourism economy lost an estimated $332 million.

"Texas lawmakers passed a law in 2001 calling for the school year to begin no later than the week of August 21," said Ford. "The year before the law went into effect, when many Texas districts started classes during the first or second week of August, more than a quarter-million public school children were absent on the first day of school. The first-day absentee rate dropped 60 percent the following school year,"

According to one Birmingham news station, the schools of that city's system reported a total of 6,000 students who did not show up on the first day of school - an absenteeism that cost the system $780,000.

"Since state and federal funding is tied to student attendance," Ford said, "starting school in early August is likely costing Alabama taxpayers precious education dollars. Why should we hold school when kids aren't coming? And when they do come to school, do they really have to be there at the hottest time of the year?"

According to Driver, there weas no noticeable rise or drop in attendance in Covington County schools on the first day this year.

"I would think that anytime you have a first day, you're going to have some kids that aren't going to be there - that would be whether you started on the 18th or the 26th," Driver said.

The primary goal of HB16, according to Ford, is to guarantee that Alabama Schools comply with mandates of the federal 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB.

"This bill clearly places a premium on education and parental involvement in the State of Education," said Ford. "It says we want educators to have a reasonable amount of time to study and deliver important data regarding our children's academic welfare. and that we want parents to have ample time to make critical decisions about the future of their children's education."

The federal NCLB act was a sweeping education reform measure designed to transform the nation's school by holding them more accountable to their communities. A major component of the law requires all states to administer standardized exams and to grade the performance of each school and school system based on student passing rates on those tests.

Under the NCLB, the state is charged with compiling test data from the previous school year and disseminating the reports to school districts, which must make them available to parents on or before the first day of school. According to Dr. Joe Morton, Deputy State Superintendent of Education in Alabama, the state has failed to comply with NCLB, with test reports released on August 14 - after all but five of the state's systems had already returned to school.

Morton said failing to comply with the act could cost the state, since it could mean the loss of Title I funding - which totaled $182 million in 2002. The estimated funding for 2003 is $205 million.

"The solution is to ensure the school year starts late enough to allow time for the reports to be sent and reviewed by parents and administrators," said Ford.

Introduced Monday during the Special Session, it is currently in the House, with the

Education Finance and Appropriations committee. According to Tina Bruno of Rep. Ford's office, the bill will be heard today by that committee and is fifth on the agenda.

State Sen. Hinton Mitchem (D-Albertville) plans to introduce a version of the bill to the Senate. Joining Ford and Mitchem in co-sponsoring the act are Sen. Steve French (R-Birmingham) and Rep. Ron Johnson (R-Sylacauga)

If approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Bob Riley, the law would go into effect for the 2004-2005 school year.