Four Days On, Three Days Off

Oklahoma and the nation’s most drastic experiment in school budgeting

Since 2008, funding for Oklahoma schools has fallen off a cliff. The great recession, major tax cuts, and falling oil prices in the mid-2010’s have all meant lower tax revenue and deep cuts to education. Local schools have had to increasingly fend for themselves financially, with districts seeing state aid decrease from 52.7% of their budgets for the 2006–2007 school year to 46.3% in the 2015–2016 school year. A debate emerged about how Oklahoma’s school districts could continue to function in the crisis.

A radical idea started to spread amongst school leaders across the state — reduce costs by cutting the school week by a day and extending the length of the remaining school days to cover the required number of instruction hours. The hope was that one less day in school would add up to major savings in areas like electricity, teacher salaries, and support staff.

While Oklahoma is not the first state to try the four day school week, it has seen the number of school districts experimenting with this plan increase faster than any other (96 total districts operate on four-day schedules, up from around 32 in 2015 and 24 in 2013). A major shift in the structure of a school week will have major implications for Oklahoma educators.

Can’t the weekend come Sooner?

Oklahoma’s educational funding crisis can be seen most clearly in the drop in per-pupil spending. Compared to states in similar situations, Oklahoma has drastically reduced the amount of money spent on each child. Since 2008, Oklahoma’s state funding per student has declined by 26.9 %, the biggest drop in per-pupil funding in the country over the past 9 years. Cuts at the state level have led to challenges in local schools such as cutbacks in arts programing, the forgoing of new textbooks, and reduced advanced placement course offerings.

Low per-pupil funding is the single biggest driver of a four day school week, but not the only one. Oklahoma has struggled with recruiting and retaining teachers. A shortage of teachers is leaving many school leaders wondering how they will operate without new recruits. Things have gotten to the point where the Oklahoma State Board of Education has had to approve emergency-certified teachers to fill vacancies across the state. This all comes back to reductions in state funding for schools.

Data from the 2016/2017 School Year (National Education Association)

Starting teaching pay in Oklahoma is lower than in any of the state’s neighbors. Legislative proposals to address this problem have so far been unsuccessful, and Oklahoma voters rejected a sales tax increase in 2016 that would have funded higher teacher pay. The result is teachers either being lured away to work in other states in the region like Arkansas and Texas or out of state districts directly recruiting in Oklahoma. Offering a four day work week, even if it means a lower salary, is a major draw for teachers.

Does it work?

Four day school weeks are not a new idea. Many states in the Mountain West saw an increase in districts exploring this option in the wake of strained state budgets in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. Even as tax revenues have returned to normal, many states have continued to underfund schools. This means the four day week has stuck around.

The results of four day weeks appear to be mixed so far in Oklahoma and the rest of the country. The savings that come from having one less day of classes appear to be minimal. This is because of a difference between fixed costs and marginal costs — schools save money on things like transportation and electricity, but do not see any savings in teacher pay or building costs. Personnel costs, the biggest part of a school district’s budget, are fixed since most teacher work on annual contracts.

Additionally, in order to continue to offer the same amount of instruction hours for students, schools on this schedule have longer school days. Less days in schools but the same amount of instruction often means very modest changes in costs. In fact, one study by the Oklahoma State Department of Education found that costs actually increased for 9 out of the 16 districts they studied (although rising student enrollment over the course of the study likely contributed to the findings to some degree).

Everybody’s working for the weekend — The advantages

Even if the four day week doesn’t solve all budget problems, there have been some surprising benefits.

  • Decreased Absenteeism: Schools have found that students show up to school more when the school week is shorter. In addition, schools with big student-athlete populations have found that things are easier when students don’t have to miss class on Friday to travel.
  • Better Opportunities for Teachers: Teachers have found that having a third day off can be very useful. Teachers in Oklahoma and elsewhere have used that former fifth class day for greater cooperation with their peers on lesson planning. These days can also be used for professional development. Schools usually lose instruction time by having professional development days during the year, so having those days already built into the schedule has been convenient. However, a shortened school week has also put pressure on teachers to cover the same amount of material in fewer days.
  • Benefits to Families: Some families have found that there are benefits to having their kids out of school one day during the week. Whether it is a doctor’s appointment or a trip to the dentist, parents have enjoyed the flexibility of a shorter week. On the other hand, this day off has been a major challenge for working families who now have to find daycare options for their children. This can be an inconvenience at best and a big problem for families at worst.
  • Teacher Recruitment: Four day school weeks have served as a way for districts to address the teacher shortage without substantially increasing salaries. A reduced school week has been attractive to teachers tempted to leave for higher-paying jobs in nearby states, and it has been persuasive for young teachers trying to decide where to start their careers.

Long time gone — The drawbacks

Just as four day school weeks have had benefits aside from their impact on districts’ budgets, there have also been some unfortunate unintended outcomes as well:

  • Underutilized Day Off: A problem schools have encountered is that students return to class on Monday’s or Tuesday’s tired and less focused on learning after a long weekend. As a solution, some schools offer tutoring and additional programing on the day off. Alternatively, some districts have become creative with their schedules, such as one Oregon district that spends Wednesdays off but assigns students projects due on Thursdays.
  • Impact on Student Hunger: Many families depend on the free and reduced meals that students receive at school. One less day in school means one less meal. This is concerning when you consider that there are numerous communities in Oklahoma where students who rely on free and reduced meals make up a large percentages of the local school district. Some schools in Idaho and Kentucky, and even Macomb Public Schools in Oklahoma, have actually switched back to five day school weeks because of these concerns.
  • Impact on Academics: A 2015 study of students in Colorado from researchers at Montana State and Georgia State Universities found that students in four-day weeks scored the same as their five-day peers in reading but actually scored higher in math. These results are contrasted, however, with a study conducted at the University of Montana. It, too, found academic gains in the short run, but over a period of several years discovered that academic performance declined significantly.

It remains to be seen how many more Oklahoma school districts will transition to four-day school weeks. However the budgetary concerns that are driving the push for reduced school weeks are not going away anytime soon. Continued tough times for public education in Oklahoma will mean more difficult decisions ahead, but when school leaders and community members alike band together no challenge is insurmountable.