HONOLULU – At a time when President Barack Obama is pushing for more time in the classroom, his home state has created the nation's shortest school year under a new union contract that closes schools on most Fridays for the remainder of the academic calendar.
The deal whacks 17 days from the school year for budget-cutting reasons and has education advocates incensed that Hawaii is drastically cutting the academic calendar at a time when it already ranks near the bottom in national educational achievement.
While many school districts have laid off or furloughed teachers, reduced pay and planning days and otherwise cut costs, Hawaii's 171,000 public schools students now find themselves with only 163 instructional days, compared with 180 in most districts in the U.S.
"The 16-year-old in me is pretty excited that I'll be able to chill on those days," said Mark Aoki, a junior at Roosevelt High in Honolulu. "But overall within me, what I truly believe is that we'll regret this."
The cuts come as Obama, who graduated from a top private high school in Hawaii, says U.S. students are at a disadvantage with other students around the world because they spend too little time in school.
He wants schools to add time to classes, to stay open late and to let kids in on weekends so they have a safe place to go. He declared recently that "the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom."
The deal in Hawaii and has parents and education authorities up in arms, including families now scrambling to find day care for the off days. Parents of special-needs students are considering suing the state, and advocates believe the plan will have a "disparate impact" on poor families, ethnic communities and single parents.
"It's just not enough time for the kids to learn," said Valerie Sonoda, president of the Hawaii State Parent Teacher Student Association. "I'm getting hundreds of calls and e-mails. They all have the same underlying concern, and that is the educational hours of the kids."
The new contract, approved by 81 percent of voting teachers, stipulates 17 furlough Fridays during which schools will be closed, with the first happening Oct. 23. The teachers accepted a concurrent pay reduction of about 8 percent, but teacher vacation, nine paid holidays and six teacher planning days are left untouched.
The new agreement also guarantees no layoffs for two years and postpones the implementation of random drug testing for teachers.
Teachers probably wouldn't have voted for the contract if they had to work the same amount for less pay, paving the way for the shorter school year, said Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe. He also said the state couldn't get the necessary savings if teacher furlough days were scheduled for holidays — or workdays with schools kept open.
Hawaii has the nation's only statewide school district, meaning that state government pays directly for education instead of self-supporting local school districts.
More than a quarter of the state's general budget goes to the state Department of Education. When Republican Gov. Linda Lingle attempted to balance the budget, she withheld 14 percent from estimated salaries, or $227 million, this year from the public school system.
Hawaii Schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto acknowledges that learning time will be lost and students will suffer, but she says schools will try to increase their efforts during the remaining school days to cram in as much teaching as they can.
"If we're trying to say education is the most important thing, then we should be supporting it," said Superintendent Pat Hamamoto.
The cuts are occurring in a Hawaii public education system that's already ranked 47th in the nation in eighth-grade reading and math, according to 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores.
"The less time spent on a task, the less likely it is that you're going to achieve," said Jack Jennings, president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. "Instructional time is usually the last thing to go in these budget crises."
Meanwhile, a record number of schools this year failed to meet progress goals under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Only 34 percent of schools met their "adequate yearly progress" goals this year. Two-third of schools missed the benchmarks. This was the second year of dramatic increases in the number of schools failing to meet the federal goals.
But state test score results have inched up. About 65 percent of students are proficient in reading, compared with 39 percent when testing began in 2002. Likewise, 44 percent of students demonstrated proficiency in math, more than double the 19 percent in 2002.
At least 25 states have made cuts to K-12 education, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. School districts in states including California, Florida, New Mexico are forcing teachers to take unpaid days off, but most of those furloughs are not on school days and they're usually limited to fewer than five days annually.
And none of those local school district furloughs are on the scale of Hawaii's, which employs 13,000 teachers.
At 163 school days, Hawaii's school year ranks behind every other state. Most states provide students with 180 days of school, while 10 other states offer less than 180 days, according to the Education Commission of the States.