With state budget in crisis, many Oklahoma schools hold classes four days a week
Ninety-six districts have shortened the school week, nearly triple as many as in 2015.
A deepening budget crisis here has forced schools across the Sooner State to make painful decisions. Class sizes have ballooned, art and foreign-language programs have shrunk or disappeared, and with no money for new textbooks, children go without. Perhaps the most significant consequence: Students in scores of districts are now going to school just four days a week.
The shift not only upends what has long been a fundamental rhythm of life for families and communities. It also runs contrary to the push in many parts of the country to provide more time for learning — and daily reinforcement — as a key way to improve achievement, especially among poor children.
But funding for classrooms has been shrinking for years in this deep-red state as lawmakers have cut taxes, slicing away hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue in what some Oklahomans consider a cautionary tale about the real-life consequences of the small-government approach favored by Republican majorities in Washington and statehouses nationwide.
School districts staring down deep budget holes have turned to shorter weeks in desperation as a way to save a little bit of money and persuade increasingly hard-to-find teachers to take some of the nation’s lowest-paying jobs.
Of 513 school districts in Oklahoma, 96 have lopped Fridays or Mondays off their schedules — nearly triple the number in 2015 and four times as many as in 2013. An additional 44 are considering cutting instructional days by moving to a four-day week in the fall or by shortening the school year, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association found in a survey last month.
“I don’t think it’s right. I think our kids are losing out on education,” said Sandy Robertson, a grandmother of four in Newcastle, a fast-growing rural community set amid wheat and soybean fields south of Oklahoma City. “They’re trying to cram a five-day week into a four-day week.”
Oklahoma is not the only state where more students are getting three-day weekends, a concept that dates to the 1930s. The number is climbing slowly across broad swaths of the rural big-sky West, driven by a combination of austere budgets, fuel-guzzling bus rides and teacher shortages that have turned four-day weeks into an important recruiting tool.
The four-day week is a “contagion,” said Paul Hill, a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell who has studied the phenomenon in Idaho and who worries that the consequences of the shift — particularly for poor kids — are unknown.
But in other states, the Great Recession sparked a spike in the growth of four-day weeks that has since slowed, according to data collected by The Washington Post. Oklahoma stands out for the velocity with which districts have turned to a shorter school week in the past several years, one of the most visible signs of a budget crisis that has also shuttered rural hospitals, led to overcrowded prisons and forced state troopers to abide by a 100-mile daily driving limit.
Democrats helped pass bipartisan income tax cuts from 2004 to 2008. Republicans — who have controlled the legislature since 2009 and governorship since 2011 — have cut income taxes further and also significantly lowered taxes on oil and gas production.
“The problems facing Oklahoma are our own doing. There’s not some outside force that is causing our schools not to be able to stay open,” said state Sen. John Sparks, the chamber’s top Democrat. “These are all the result of a bad public policy and a lack of public-sector investment.”
But Gov. Mary Fallin ® said a downturn in the energy sector and a decreasing sales tax revenue have led to several “very difficult budget years.”
The governor said in an email to The Post that she thinks “students are better served by five-day weeks” because moving to four days requires a longer school day. That makes it “hard for students, especially in the early grades, to focus on academic content during the late hours of the day,” she said.
Facing a $900 million budget gap, lawmakers approved a budget Friday that will effectively hold school funding flat in the next year. In Washington, President Trump has proposed significant education cuts that would further strain local budgets.
‘We’ve cut so much for so long’
Few states have schools that are worse off.
Oklahoma’s education spending has decreased 14 percent per child since 2008, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the state in 2014 spent just $8,000 per student, according to federal data. Only Arizona, Idaho and Utah spent less.
“We’ve cut so much for so long that the options just are no longer there,” said Deborah Gist, superintendent in Tulsa, a district that still holds classes five days a week but plans to merge schools and eliminate more than three dozen teaching positions.
This year has been particularly tough, as repeated revenue shortfalls have left districts facing midyear cuts. “I’ve done this job a long time, and this is the hardest I’ve ever had it,” said Tony O’Brien, superintendent of Newcastle schools, which have about 2,300 students.
O’Brien said the schedule change helped Newcastle shave about $110,000 out of its $12 million annual budget, savings that equal more than two teachers. The savings come mostly from shutting off building utilities on Fridays and from using less diesel fuel to run buses. Teacher salaries — the bulk of any district’s cost — didn’t change.
Experts say four-day weeks don’t save much money. In Newcastle and elsewhere, school leaders say the biggest benefit has been attracting and retaining teachers in some of the nation’s lowest-paying jobs.
This is what Austerity looks like. Police aren’t on patrol, hospitals are shutting down, schools are failing our children. This is a government so small it isn’t a government anymore.