Should Chicago consider four-day school weeks?

This week’s blog post is by The Paternity Test co-host Matt Boresi, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with his wife (“Professor Foster”) and their 6-year-old daughter Viva, who would be perfectly happy with a four-MINUTE school week.

Oklahoma. More like “Broke-lahoma,” am I right? Short sighted financial policies (involving not charging taxes but still spending money) have led to major budget shortfalls and looming teacher strike à la West Virginia. And who wants to be like West Virginia? Literally no state wants to be like West Virginia — even the humid ones in the south and the ones west of here with no people. The wind might go sweeping down the planes of Oklahoma, but there’s nothing but talk of revolution on that wind. One potential solution to Oklahoma’s troubles currently being floated is one that’s a rising favorite amongst broke states: moving to a four-day school week.

Those words: “four-day school week” always elicit a dramatic response from parents. How is your blood pressure right now? For many parents, particularly those with at least one stay-at-home component, it’s a chance to spend a generous amount of with your child once they’ve reached school age. A chance for bonding, for experiential learning and constant three-day weekends. For others, it’s a financial and scheduling apocalypse that means a new day of child care. (In some districts with four-day schedules, like those in Colorado, childcare is available at the school for $30 a day. That’s cheaper than many options, but still $30 a week more than you’re currently paying — and that can be crippling for many.)

What are the savings for the school districts? Well, you don’t save on teacher salaries, because those are negotiated with the union. It does create an incentive for teachers to work in the affected districts, though, because they have an extra day off for the same pay, and, indeed, the hundreds of districts, mostly poor and rural, across the country which have gone to four-day schedule have found they can suddenly attract better teaching candidates despite offering lousy salaries. The savings come in staff (custodial and administrative), energy costs, buses and substitute teachers. Sorry, subs, no work for you on Fridays. All in all, the savings are slim to nearly non-existent. Child care on the day off means the school stays open and custodians still work (including extra hours on the remaining four days, which get a little longer) but there’s still the issue of teacher recruitment, which improves.  You read that right. There’s only four days but they are longer. If you’ve ever been around students in the last hour of a school day, it makes you wonder what that extra hour or ninety minutes of school must be like. Lots of kids trying to use Piggy’s glasses to start fires, I would think.

Speaking of broke states, what does Illinois think about all this? In 2010, the Illinois House passed a bill that would have allowed districts to move to a four-day week, but it never passed the Senate. (And Mayor Daley and CPS were staunchly opposed.) For downstate schools, there’s cost savings, more stay-at-home parents and a chance for rural kids to do rural kid things, like chew tobacco and tumble into grain bins. The “free range” set is thrilled! Enough with your “book larnin,’” let the children break into garages and hit frogs with baseball bats! In Chicago, however, no school means potentially crippling childcare costs or really dangerous scenarios involving kids at loose ends risking increased exposure to drugs and gangs. Oops.This makes me sound staunchly against a four-day school day. That’s not true; I think both kids and parents spend too much time in the programmatic grind of our post-Neolithic Revolution world of agriculture and industry. Adults trade their lives for money with only the occasional Hawaiian shirt day or company golf scramble to break up the misery. Meanwhile, kids go to schools designed exactly like a factory (or a jail) to learn to be the same grinding mopes as their parents. A constant three-day weekend would give us more time for “the Good Life:” time with family, time to make and consume art, time to think, time to be virtuous (call me a Stoic), time to get busy living. Think of how busy the museums will be on Fridays! But this utopian vision only comes to pass if PARENTS ALSO move to a four-day WORK week! If the kids are turned loose but the parents are still humping away in their cubes, all you’ve got is rain falling up and dogs and cats living together … not a chance at a meaningful existence (or at least at a good hard run at Hedonism).

Keep your eye on Oklahoma. If the four-day schedule solves their problems, we may see more districts across the country move to that model (and hundreds already have). Chicago would likely be one of the LAST places to go four-day, but paradigmatic shifts reach a critical mass and then happen all over all of a sudden. It’s a worthwhile thought experience to ask yourself, what would a four-day school week mean for my family?

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