Are Four-Day School Weeks the New Norm?
Colorado has more school districts operating on a 4-day school week than any other state. This school year, more than half of Colorado’s 178 school districts have at least one school operating on a four-day school week. Of all of the schools in Colorado, 98 Colorado school districts now operate four days a week. Recently, School District 27J (Brighton) became the first urban district to join that list, and Pueblo 60 followed suit soon after. Cañon City announced just days ago that they too are considering a four-day school week, representing a concerning trend in our state.
Districts that have made the change to four-day school weeks have said that eliminating the fifth day allows districts to save money; recruit, retain and provide more professional development time for teachers; and spend more time with students who need remediation.
Research shows savings don’t last and create complications
However, research from the Donnell Kay Foundation and from the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) reveal that cost savings from cutting the school week to four days are relatively hard to achieve and that the four-day school week has little to no impact on student performance, four-day weeks present child care challenges for families, make it harder for some students to get nutritious meals, and are associated with increases in certain types of crime.
Research by Bellwether Education Partners and the Albertson Family Foundation suggest that though many districts adopt the four-day week in an effort to trim their budgets, none experienced significant savings as a result. Contrary to expectations, some districts saw their costs rise as a result of the need for additional enrichment activities and after-school snacks during the extended day. Research completed in 2011 by CDE indicated that students in four- and five-day districts performed similarly on the state assessments and showed similar amounts of academic growth.
Impact on families, communities
The four-day school week creates challenges for working parents, who often have to find and pay for child care for just one day a week. This represents an additional cost to parents who may only have a single income, work full-time or have nontraditional work schedules. In the case of School District 27J, this cost to parents would be greater than the costs they would have incurred from passing a proposed mill levy override in 2017. Lastly, four-day weeks create an additional challenge for students experiencing hunger as they may face three days without dependable, nutritious school meals.
The child care challenges for parents leave students with more unsupervised time on their hands, which a recent study suggests may lead to higher crime rates. The study found that areas where the school week was shortened saw an increase of 20 percent in property crimes and increases in drug offenses.
Brighton first non-rural district to switch
Before Brighton’s school board approved the shift to a four-day week in February of this year, all districts that received approval from the Department of Education were considered “rural” (serving 6,500 students or fewer) or “small rural” (fewer than 1,000 students), with the largest concentration in southeastern Colorado, according to the Donnell-Kay Foundation.
Although Brighton has been considered a mostly rural district in the past, its enrollment has more than tripled in a decade, making it the 15th-largest school district in the state by enrollment. In fact, it is the second-fastest-growing district in the six-county metropolitan area, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Unfortunately, funding hasn’t kept pace with that growth and the district currently spends $2,560 less per student than the state average of $9,960 per student.
Four-day weeks signs of broken finance system
While the move to a four-day school week is estimated to save Brighton around $1 million, this represents a small amount of the district’s operating budget of nearly $360 million dollars. Pueblo 60 also claims the district would experience savings of $1.4 million, which represents less than 1 percent of its total operating budget. The shift to four-day school weeks serves as a short-term and unsustainable solution to the school funding constraints that districts face in Colorado.
We must think more deeply about how to address the underlying issues in our structurally broken school finance system. A fix to the state’s methods for acquiring revenue, and ensuring greater equity and adequacy, is long overdue.