After several years of state and local budget cuts, thousands of school districts across the nation are gutting summer-school programs, cramming classes into four-day weeks or lopping days off the school year, even though virtually everyone involved in education agrees that American students need more instruction time.
Los Angeles slashed its budget for summer classes to $3 million from $18 million last year, while Philadelphia, Milwaukee and some school districts in North Carolina have sharply reduced summer school or dropped it altogether.
A scattering of rural districts in New Mexico, Idaho and other states will be closed on Fridays or Mondays come September. And in California, where some 600 of the 1,100 local districts have shortened the calendar by up to five days over the past two years, lawmakers last week authorized them to cut seven days more if budgets get tighter.
"Instead of increasing school time, in a lot of cases we've been pushing back against efforts to shorten not just the school day but the week and year," said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the federal Department of Education. "We're trying to prevent what exists now from shrinking even further."
For two decades, advocates have been working to modernize the nation's traditional 180-day school calendar, saying that the languid summers evoked in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" have a pernicious underside: Each fall, many students - especially those who are poor - return to school having forgotten much of what they learned the previous year. The Obama administration picked up the mantra: At his 2009 confirmation hearing, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared, "Our school day is too short, our school week is too short, our school year is too short," but the administration's efforts in this realm have not been as successful as other initiatives.
"It feels like it's been pushed to the back burner a bit," said Jeff Smink, a vice president at the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore.
The most ambitious federal program in this realm is part of a $4 billion effort to overhaul 1,150 failing schools, in which each is required to select an improvement model that includes a new schedule increasing learning time. In the Denver suburbs, for example, Fort Logan Elementary School has used the federal money to add four-and-a-half hours of instruction per week.
But an interim report on the program in 10 states found that several districts visited by federal inspectors were out of compliance. In Reno, Nev., for example, officials found that Smithridge Elementary School was using the 15 minutes it had added each morning for breakfast, not academics.
In a separate report scheduled for release Thursday, the National Center on Time and Learning, a Boston group that advocates expanding instruction time, acknowledges that an "untold number" of schools nationwide have reduced their hours and days, often by furloughing teachers. But the report also says more than 1,000 schools and districts have expanded their schedules, and it highlights many examples.
In Pittsburgh, for example, $11 million in federal stimulus money is being used this summer to provide 5,300 students - more than twice the 2,400 enrolled last year - 23 additional days of math and reading instruction in a camplike atmosphere that converts some of the city's museums, recording studios and even bicycle-repair shops into classrooms.
In the small town of Brandon, S.D., near Sioux Falls, about 65 teachers and principals plan to work without pay this summer to keep alive a summer school program that would have otherwise been canceled because of cuts in state aid.
"Our staff got together and said, 'Let's do something to help our kids avoid that summer learning loss,' " said David Pappone, the superintendent.
And in Chicago, which has had one of the shortest school days of any major urban system, Mayor Rahm Emanuel won powers last month to impose a longer day and year. Emanuel is working with school authorities to add time for the fall term.
But each of these seems to have a counterexample.
Across Oregon, districts have been negotiating furlough days with teachers unions. In April, for instance, the local union agreed with the 17,000-student North Clackamas district, south of Portland, to six unpaid days off in 2011-12, leaving students with 168 days of class. Many of Oregon's 200 districts have cut similar deals. The average number of days teachers are scheduled to be with students next year fell to 165 from 167 this year, according to a survey by the Oregon School Boards Association.
Oregon sets minimum annual instructional hours - 990 hours for ninth grade, for example. Most states set minimum days, and several that do - including Arizona, California and Nevada - have lowered the bar amid belt-tightening. Nevada's new law, signed in June, allows as few as 175 days, down from 180.
California made the same cut in 2009, but last week dropped the minimum to 168 for any district where revenues fall short of projections during the 2011-12 school year.
Hawaii, mired in red ink, shortened its 180-day school year to 163 days in 2009, shuttering schools on many Fridays. But lawsuits and widespread protests last year persuaded lawmakers to restore the school year to 178 days.
Last month, North Carolina lawmakers moved in the same direction, raising the state's minimum to 185 days of instruction, up from 180. But because the legislature provided no additional financing, some education officials were less than thrilled.