California Dreamin’

Recently a story came to my attention that, for some reason, struck me as from the realm of the imaginary. A school leader, in this case Superintendent William Habermehl of Orange County, California, stood up during his annual state of education address and called for a school year that was at least 15 days longer. He proposed that these additional days would better prepare students for STEM fields and help the nation to become more globally competitive.

On some level, his call is nothing unusual. School leaders and policymakers across the country, including, of course, President Obama and Secretary Duncan, have been making the same argument consistently for several years now. So why is Superintendent Habermehl’s speech so striking? Because it comes from a school official in California, the state which is in such deep fiscal trouble that it passed a law two years ago that allowed districts to cut five days from the school year to save money, a provision which many school districts have taken advantage of.  To make matters worse, the state, still trying to dig out from its financial hole, may allow districts to cut another 10 days in the years to come. Just imagine the potential damage that is being perpetrated on the school children in California by reducing their learning time by almost 10 percent over the last few years. Even if we can’t immediately perceive the effects of the shorter school year, for these students, who have only one chance to be adequately educated to prepare them for life, these cuts are nothing short of tragic.

Enter the superintendent from Orange County, the third most populous county in the state and one that serves 500,000 schoolchildren, who has stated his case plainly: “We are going in the wrong direction. At a time when we need to make schools more challenging, we’re cutting school days.” Of course, it is one thing to argue that students and schools need more time, it is quite another to provide it. On that score, Superintendent Habermehl suggests that the district could pay for the extra days if—and it is a big “if”—the federal government were to fund the costs of the special ed services in his district, a total of $270 million.

I am loathe to take a position on this particular shuffling of dollars that the superintendent offers—I simply don’t know enough of the details to weigh in on its validity or not—but I can at least suggest that I agree with the superintendent that building more time into the school schedule often does require the re-directing of funds for different purposes.  For example, some states under NCLB waivers granted by the Obama Administration may re-purpose funds used for targeting tutoring (Supplemental Education Services) to instead provide more school time for the whole student body in a school. Regardless of whether Orange County is able to make true on its superintendent’s vision, I find it thoroughly uplifting to know that there are education leaders who are refusing to yield to the tough setbacks they are forced to face now. In the midst of crises, they are still able to imagine instead the way schools should be. Good luck, Orange County!