How About a Longer School Year?


FEB. 24, 2012


One reason California schools perform so poorly is that the state’s educrats, instead of improving instruction, commonly look for gimmicks to cover up their own failures. In my 25 years of writing about Golden State schools, one recurring “reform” is to lengthen the school year. Supposedly the Korean or the Chinese or the Liechtensteinian kids learn better because they go to school for many more weeks than America’s kids, who during the summer months are left to roam the streets joining gangs.

That’s just the theme sounded Thursday by Bill Habermehl, the Orange County superintendent of education during his annual Orange County of Education address. According to the Orange County Register, he said, “We need to find new ways to compete with countries like Japan, Korea and China, where students are going to school for 200 to 220 days a year…. We are going in the wrong direction. At a time when we need to make schools more challenging, we’re cutting school day,” because of budget cuts. He wants to add another 15 school days. That’s three weeks. Throw in the July 4 holiday and a couple of teacher preparation days, and that’s another month of schooling.

It makes you wonder how America became the world’s premier industrial power when our kids spent all summer cutting each other up in “West Side Story” switchblade fights.

I reported on Habermehl back in 2010, in an editorial I wrote for the Orange County Register, “Study: School budgets not being cut.” Subhead: “Story Highlights: Expenditures outpaced inflation since 2003-04. O.C. superintendent questions results.” The editorial was based on exhaustive study by Steven B. Frates and Michael A. Shires of  the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University.

Instead of looking at school districts’ publicized budgets, the scholars examined budget data actually sent to the state. This is crucial because, whereas publicized budgets can contain fiction, it’s illegal to send incorrect numbers to the state. The study found that, instead of being cut as the educrats claimed, school budgets had risen.

I called Habermehl about the discrepancy. I wrote about his response:

“William H. Habermehl, Orange County’s superintendent of schools, said his staff is examining the study and its conclusions, but at first blush, he told us, ‘The study just doesn’t make sense to me. There’s faulty analysis on their part.’ He noted the estimates of O.C. district cuts were deepest in the period following the study. ‘Our school districts have never been flush with cash. We never get as much as other districts’ because Orange County is a donor county. He added, ‘Our books are open. Our districts have always been prudent in how they spend their money’.”

But later, he said his staff had not time to do any further checking.

So, basically he has no idea what’s going on financially with Orange County schools. And when I wrote about budgets at the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second biggest district in America, they also had no idea what was going on financially.

Pathetic Test Scores

Meanwhile, California schools continue to score near the bottom of the 50 states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  On the 2011 NAEP, California scored 46th among the states in fourth-grade reading, 49th for eight-grade reading, 46th on fourth-grade math and 48th on eight-grade math.

If California’s once top-flight schools have fallen so far behind other states, which have school years of the same length, how could another two weeks of the same incompetence improve matters? Maybe we’ll improve to 45th.

Habermehl and other extra-school-days boosters also ignore that it’s precisely America’s long school break that has contributed to our creativity. American kids spend the long summers playing, reading, inventing, dreaming. They go on long vacations with their families to “See the USA in Your Chevrolet,” as beautiful Dinah Shore urged us. The kids get to see more of this great country of ours.

That’s just what my family did in 1964. My father bought a new Chevy Impala for $2,000. With Mom as co-pilot and three kids fighting in the back seat, we drove from Michigan to California and back. I kept a diary, since lost, some of my first writing in what would become a career in journalism. I read everything I could in the maps, pamphlets and books we got at Yellowstone, Yosemite, Redwood and other parks. We went to Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm and the since closed Marineland of the Pacific. I loved California and always wanted to move here, which I did.

And back home summers, we kids in those days spent most of the day outside playing, unsupervised. We learned how to govern ourselves, improvising rules in our endless baseball games.

Would I have been better off cooped up back in Elliott Elementary school?

And how about guys like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs? If you read their biographies, they started out monkeying around with technology in their spare time and summers, dreaming the future they created.

Where’s the Money?

Habermehl said the federal government isn’t paying schools what they’re owed. “If the federal government just pays us what we’re entitled to, then we can use the savings to pay for these reforms,” he said.

But the federal government is $15.4 trillion in debt. And another $1.3 trillion is being added this year. Where’s the money supposed to come from?

Yet, before the immense federal funding — and meddling control — of recent years, schools in California and elsewhere performed much better.

Moreover, if Habermehl needs more money, there are two sources: One is to cut back generous teacher salaries, perks and pensions, which average the highest in the nation, at $59,825. (See this list. Click twice on “average salary.”)

Or how about eliminating bureaucratic bloat, such as the duplicative county departments of education — beginning with Habermehl’s own Orange County Department  of Education. Any functions the county departments are doing easily could be shifted to the local school districts, slashing administrative bloat and waste.

California’s kids deserve better than the near-rock bottom education they’re  getting now. And they deserve refreshing, innovative summers off.

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