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SCOT LEHIGH

Want a longer school day? Pay up

A longer school day has arrived as a consistent campaign theme. Among the leading candidates, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Martha Coakley says she’s a big believer, while rival Steve Grossman calls a longer day an important tool for improving education. Republican Charles D. Baker says he supports a longer day in underperforming schools.

But so far, we haven’t had a frank, freewheeling discussion about how Massachusetts can expand the school day in a way that’s educationally effective, affordable in tight budgetary times, and fair for teachers in both traditional and charter schools.

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Right now, there are three basic longer-day models in this state. Let’s call them the union model, the hybrid model, and the charter school model.

Under the union model, which is in place in 19 of the state’s 1,800 or so public schools, teachers are paid for their longer hours at or near the rate stipulated in the union contract. That program — which also funds some school-enrichment activities by community groups — costs about $1,300 per student.

Problem: That would be difficult to afford on a large scale. With more than 900,000 K-12 public school students in the state, the price tag for a universal longer day would be around $1.2 billion. Call that an all-but-impossible dream.

So let’s say the longer day was limited to kindergarten through eighth grade, the levels at which such programs generally deliver the best results. That leaves about 639,000 students — and a cost of more than $800 million. Given fiscal realities, it’s hard to imagine finding that much funding — not without significant budget cuts elsewhere, anyway.

Next, there’s the hybrid model, which we see in some Boston and Lawrence schools as the result of turnaround initiatives. Boston turnaround schools pay teachers a stipend of $4,100 for extra teaching time. In Lawrence, teachers make between $2,000 and $4,000 extra depending on how much additional time they work.

So far, we haven’t had a frank, freewheeling discussion about how the Commonwealth can expand the school day.

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At that rate, the cost of a statewide longer day in K-8 drops to somewhere in the $300 million range. More manageable, yes, but still not the kind of sum one can simply conjure up — or assume can be found by focusing on waste, fraud, and abuse.

Now for the charter school model. Charter schools routinely provide a longer school day and a longer school year for the 31,000 students they serve. Not only that, but they do so for the same per pupil dollars that buy only a shorter day in the traditional public schools. In that sense, they provide taxpayers with a very good bargain.

But it’s not realistic to think more charters alone are the solution. There’s not the capacity to increase charter enrollment that dramatically. Even if there were, doing so would be hugely disruptive.

There’s also an equity issue here. If traditional school teachers are going to receive extra pay for the extra time they work, charter teachers who already put in that time deserve more compensation as well.

The solution that best meets the combined test of effectiveness, affordability, and fairness would be to extend the hybrid approach to schools serving low-income kids, who most need extra help. That could probably be done for around $120 million, which would also include a longer-day stipend for charter teachers. But that would only work if traditional school teachers agreed to put in the extra hours for the stipend rate — or, failing that, if the Legislature gave urban districts the authority to implement a longer day along the lines of the hybrid model.

“Expanded learning is a powerful tool to help disadvantaged students,” says Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the National Center on Time & Learning. “We have to settle on what’s a fair basis for teachers and a sustainable basis for taxpayers so that those students get what they need regardless of school governance.”

Ask the candidates about ways and means, and this is what you get back. Coakley’s campaign says she’d begin with a longer day in receptive elementary and middle schools in Gateway Cities. Grossman says he’d start with the districts that most need help closing the achievement gap. Both Democrats make qualified nods to the possibility of finding new revenue if needed. Baker’s campaign says a longer day should be part of state-led intervention in underperforming schools and as such, “would not necessarily require additional funding.”

That’s pretty thin gruel all around. Voters — and journalists — should demand more than easy promises and vague answers during this campaign season.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.
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