Overdue: Extended School Years (David Boling Commentary)

American students on average go to school 180 days a year. Arkansas is just below that number at 178 days a year — about nine months, with three months off. But at the dawn of the 21st century, when a child's future is largely determined by his or her brain power, isn't it time to rethink this outdated 19th century school-year model? I think so, and I think the Arkansas business community should make extending school years a top priority of education reform.
Despite all the school reforms that have been implemented over the years, the basic structure of the school year has never been changed. For example, when "A Nation at Risk" came out in 1983, it recommended that school districts and state legislatures "strongly consider 7-hour school days, as well as a 200- to 220-day school year." Even though many other recommendations were acted upon, this recommendation has never gained traction.
Our international competitors — such as Japan and Korea — understand the importance of longer time in school. In these countries the school year is over 200 days — with some schools opting to go over 220 days. The United States has one of the shortest school years among developed countries.
Here's my proposal. Arkansas should increase the school year by four days each year for the next five years. In the sixth year, it should add two days, thereby giving Arkansas a 200-day school year. That change would add 22 days of school to the current school year — the equivalent of about one month. As a result, over the course of an Arkansas child's 12 years of education, he or she would be spending about one more year in school than under the current system. Moreover, it would make Arkansas the undisputed leader in the United States when it comes to extended school years.
What are the benefits of an extended school year? There are at least three.
• Good education policy. Research supports what common sense tells us — that is, the more time a student spends in school, the better the student does on tests and the more he or she learns. Many studies have shown that long summers contribute to students forgetting much of what they learn. This is especially true for low-income kids. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter school in Helena has an extended school day, week and year. More importantly, their test scores have improved. Any Arkansas teacher will say that he or she often spends the first weeks of the new school year re-teaching what was forgotten over the long, homework-less vacation.
• Good business policy: Extended school years will help produce a better-educated work force. That is a plus to Arkansas businesses that will hire these students and sends the right message to firms considering locating a plant in Arkansas. Face it: One key weakness Arkansas has compared with other states when recruiting industry is the perception that our work force is not well educated. If Arkansas takes the lead by lengthening its school year, it would send the right message to prospective investors.
• Pro-family policy. Long summer vacations are a big disruption for working families. Census data shows that two-thirds of American children live in homes with a single parent or where both parents work. An Urban Institute study also shows that over 40 percent of working families pay for child care during the summer — amounting to 8 percent of their summertime income. Extending the school year will help these families by lessening that burden and stress. Likewise, latch-key kids are more likely to get mixed up in juvenile crime. Another month of school will help reduce this problem and assure parents that their kids are in a safe place.
Extending the school year is a reform that is long overdue. It is time for the Arkansas business community to get behind this common sense reform.
(David Boling is a lawyer with Mitchell Williams Selig Gates & Woodyard PLLC of Little Rock. He is a former lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice's Antitrust Division and speaks and reads Japanese. E-mail him at dboling@mwsgw.com.)