The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With state budget in crisis, many Oklahoma schools hold classes four days a week

Middle school students come and go in Newcastle, Okla., during a field day in May. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

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.

From the 2011 archive: In trimming school budgets, more officials turn to a four-day week

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 (R) 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.

Elementary class sizes in the town now hover around 26 and 27, far higher than a 20-student limit set in a 1990 state law. In 2016, schools started charging to participate in sports and extracurricular activities and, after considerable community debate, moved to a four-day week, with longer school days.

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.

America has a teacher shortage, and a new study says it’s getting worse

Oklahoma has not raised teachers’ salaries since 2008, and the average salary in 2013 — $44,128 — put the state at 49th in the nation, according to the latest available federal data. Teachers are leaving in droves for better-paying jobs across state lines, superintendents say. And the number of positions filled by emergency-certified teachers — who have no education training (or, in O’Brien’s words, “are upright and breathing”) — is now 35 times as high as it was in 2011.

Districts figure that if they can’t give teachers a raise, they can at least give them extra time off.

Chris Treu, a Newcastle High business teacher in her 20th year, said that with a master’s degree and an extra stipend for working in career and technology education, she earns about $48,000 — barely more than some of her former students earn fresh out of college. “It’s disheartening,” she said. “If I have to go back to a five-day week, I think I’m done, because I know I’m not going to get more money.”

Shannon Chlouber, a third-grade teacher at Newcastle Elementary, said she spends half her Fridays off working on lesson plans and grading papers, leaving her weekends free and making a relentless job more sustainable. She is an 18-year classroom veteran, and she earns $39,350. “If I were single, I’d be on welfare,” she said.

How much teachers get paid, state by state

Oklahoma opened the door to shorter weeks in 2009 with a bill meant to help school districts cope with snow-day closures. The change allowed schools to meet instructional requirements by holding class either 1,080 hours or 180 six-hour days a year.

That flexibility opened the way for districts to try four-day weeks — a move that in many cases required lengthening each remaining day by about 45 minutes.

Research on the academic effects of four-day weeks is thin, and the picture is decidedly muddy. A 2015 study of fourth- and fifth-graders in Colorado showed that students on four-day weeks fared better in math than their peers on traditional schedules, and no different in reading.

Tim Tharp, Montana’s deputy state superintendent of education, found the opposite when he studied longer-term effects for his 2014 University of Montana doctoral dissertation. Montana students tended to show academic gains in the first year of four-day weeks, but over four or five years, their achievement declined.

Tharp thinks that districts at first pick up the academic pace to make sure their students don’t lose ground, but then grow complacent and start teaching as though they’re still on five-day weeks. “Old routines are easy to slip back into,” he said.

‘Some people don’t get to eat’

Many parents here said they like the four-day schedule because it gives them more time with their children. Principals were also upbeat, saying grades are up, disciplinary incidents down, and students and staff happier and more motivated. Teachers said students are faring as well or better, academically, than before.

Predictably, plenty of young people are thrilled.

“It rocks,” said Jordan Banfield, 18, who liked having Fridays off during her senior year at Newcastle High. “You honestly don’t dread going to school as much.”

But even kids are not unanimous. Chad Marble said his second-grader, Emerson, comes home complaining that school is too rushed. And some children are sensitive to the fact that the four-day week means extra stress for working families that struggle to find day care and poor children who depend on school for meals.

“It’s good and bad,” one Newcastle fourth-grader said. “The good part is we have more time with our families, and the bad part is some people don’t get to eat.”

Newcastle has arranged for low-cost child care on Fridays — $30 per child per week — and the town has a low poverty rate by Oklahoma standards. Only about one-third of students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch. A food bank sends extra food home with hungry students to tide them over during long weekends, but teachers say few ask for that help.

In most other Oklahoma districts with four-day weeks, the overwhelming majority of students qualify for subsidized meals.

Macomb, a tiny rural district where 88 percent of students qualify for subsidized meals, was on four-day weeks until Superintendent Matthew Riggs persuaded the school board in 2015 to return to a traditional schedule.

Riggs said he could not “in good conscience” continue the four-day weeks — not when his students were already struggling in math and reading, and not when some were going hungry.

Meals are also a concern for David Pennington, superintendent in Ponca City on the western edge of the Osage Reservation, where nearly 70 percent of students qualify for subsidized meals. Ponca City cut 25 positions last year, consolidated bus routes, stopped offering German and wood shop, and packed 38 kids into one high school astronomy class.

Pennington said that four-day weeks are on the table for next fall, but that he doesn’t want to go that route. He’s more inclined to stop hiring substitute teachers or to get rid of less-popular extracurricular activities.

“I can’t even remember the last time we sat down and talked about what can we do that’s good for kids,” he said. “Our conversations are what are we going to cut next.”