Texas lawmakers are considering a recommendation from the Texas Commission on Public School Finance to pay for adding up to 30 school days to the 180-day school year. Lawmakers and the public should first consider the tradeoffs of such an investment.
It is true that increasing the school year can positively impact student achievement. For example, extending the school year can curb “summer learning loss,” the backward slides students have over the summer if they are not exposed to stimulating activities.
Researchers have found higher-income families are able to invest more time and financial resources in their children’s education over the summer, which in turn disadvantages lower-income students who can regress or not progress at the same rate over the summer.
An extended school year can also increase feelings of school-connectedness and belongingness, two factors that have been found to reduce the likelihood of adolescents engaging in delinquent behaviors.
But while the benefits of extending the school year seem obvious, lawmakers must consider other investments that need to be made since the amount of money the state can provide will always have a limit. Specifically, the Legislature needs to consider what economists call “opportunity costs,” the loss of potential gain from funding other key education-related priorities.
First, the state needs to pay close attention to funding inequities between high-poverty districts and low-poverty districts. A recent study on Texas school finance found that high-poverty districts received 5.5 percent less funding than low-poverty districts in other states. This means high-poverty districts often have lower teacher salaries and fewer teachers per student than wealthier districts.
Second, the state needs to invest in special education. In 2018, the Texas Education Agency was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Education for failing to comply with the nation’s special education law, which contributed to the delay or denial of special education to eligible students with disabilities. Funding is necessary to ensure all educators receive appropriate professional development to adhere to federal laws and implement research-based practices that support success for students with disabilities.
Third, the state must invest in student mental health. One thing Texas lawmakers can do is provide the resources to require that each school in the state employs at least one school counselor and is in compliance with the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation for at least one counselor for every 250 students.
Right now, some entire school districts don’t have counselors, and even when schools have counselors, they are often overburdened with noncounseling duties.
Fourth, we need to pay our teachers more, something that is already being talked about. According to a 2017-18 estimate from the National Education Association, the average teacher salary in Texas is $53,167, which is more than $7,000 less than the national average of $60,483. Closing this gap is important, but it is also important that the state consider that teachers must be incentivized to work in schools with the highest proportion of struggling students.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, the state needs to invest less in systems of accountability and more in developing a talent pipeline of teachers, principals and counselors. Educators need to be well prepared and professionally supported throughout their careers. This includes investments into teacher and leader preparation programs as well as additional funding for in-service professional development.
These pressing concerns need to be considered as the Legislature contemplates investing in an extended school year. Although extending the school year may provide a degree of benefits, it means the state will have fewer resources to address other long-standing school finance issues.
Texas has the financial resources to create the finest education system in the nation, but significant and sustainable investments must be made in public education. To do so, lawmakers and their constituents must think about opportunity costs and ask: Do we want to extend a school year without fixing the long-standing issues within Texas schools?
Simply put, extending the school year can help provide stimulating activities and enrichment opportunities for low-income students who would normally be on summer break, but such efforts alone fail to address root problems that currently curtail the potential of Texas schools and students.
David DeMatthews is the director of the Texas Principal Leadership Academy and an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News, Austin American Statesman, Waco Tribune Herald, Lubbock Avalanche Journal, Amarillo Globe News, and the Abilene Reporter News.