Facing uncommonly severe winter weather, states are moving to give school districts extra days off without facing the loss of funding or other sanctions.
States often give school districts a number of "calamity days," which they can take off for severe weather or other reasons without penalty. The number allowed ranges by state. Many states also require districts to form a plan for making up instructional time if they exceed a certain number of days.
While it's not uncommon for state legislatures to give flexibility to districts to make up days lost to snow or to relax the required number of instructional days, this year adds new geographic scope to state efforts. Georgia and South Carolina have acted to give districts breathing room, though in Georgia’s case the move came from the state board of education and gave districts broad authority to decide whether to make up snow days at all. Kentucky just recently took up a bill that would allow districts to waive up to 10 instructional days, and Ohio is considering a bill that would allow up to four additional days off for severe weather.
“The breadth of it is a little bit more unusual, just for how many waivers these states will have to provide,” said Kathy Christie, the vice president of information management for the Education Commission of the States. “We’ve just had more far-reaching areas affected this year.”
The sponsors of state bills have cited safety concerns and have seen little pushback from superintendents, though legislators have argued over just how forgiving to be. The South Carolina House first introduced a bill that would have allowed districts to temporarily waive the requirement to make up missed days, allowing up to five without penalty. But the Senate insisted on requiring districts to go through their legally required make-up days before tapping into the five additional days, and their version of the legislation ultimately won unanimous approval when it returned to the House. Gov. Nikki Haley is expected to sign the law, which gives local school boards the option of forgiving days missed.
The Senate version also earned the blessing of State Superintendent Mick Zais, who said the bill struck the right balance between flexibility and making the most of academic time.
"Dr. Zais supports the legislation requiring districts to first use their three make-up days,” a spokesman said. “He's always encouraged districts to maximize instructional time but also understands we've had a tough winter and districts need flexibility to manage their calendars the rest of this school year."
Ohio is locked in a similar debate about balance, with both chambers currently trying to reconcile different bills in a joint committee. In Ohio’s case, the call for greater calamity days started with Gov. John Kasich, who started arguing in January for a reprieve.
“School closures can, of course, be an inconvenience but student safety always comes first," Kasich said in a statement. "Many schools have already hit the maximum number of snow days, or will soon, and if they exceed it and have to extend the school year it can wreak havoc with schools budgets and schedules. Giving schools a few extra snow days this year will be helpful and let everyone stay focused on the top priority when weather hits, keeping kids safe."
Ohio House members had a different concern, though: tens of millions of dollars in teacher salary costs wasted, said Rep. Gerald Stebelton, chairman of the House Education Committee. "That was the opinion of some of the members of the General Assembly," he said, though he didn't share those views.
The House acted first, passing a bill by a wide margin that essentially grants districts up to four additional calamity days to stay in compliance with the Department of Education and allows them to make up days by lengthening the school day in 30-minute increments. That last part of the bill mirrors a policy Michigan’s legislature recently made a permanent fixture of school calendar law.
The Ohio Senate’s bill lowers the number of additional days to three and also requires districts to make up at least four calamity days before dipping into the extra supply. A final resolution that more closely mirrors the Senate version is expected next week, Stebelton said.
“We’re going to be very close to the Senate version,” he said. “We think what the Senate version did was more realistic than what was passed by the House. That’s where we’ll be, plus or minus a day.”
While some superintendents and lawmakers argued tacking on extra days to the end of a school calendar amounts to useless instructional time, the prospect of any lost learning time doesn’t sit well with everyone. Greg Harris, the state director of StudentsFirst, an education reform advocacy group founded by Michelle Rhee, said the statehouse debate often hinged on the fact that state-mandated standardized tests would already be over by the time schools made up the lost days. That fuels the sense that testing logistics drive calendar decisions, Harris said.
“Our perspective is it’s lost instructional time for kids, many of whom need it,” he said.