Arizona children could be going to school 10 fewer days a year - but longer each day - under the terms of a proposal crafted by two Republican legislators.
Sen. Rich Crandall of Mesa and Rep. Doris Goodale of Kingman said Thursday they believe giving schools more flexibility with their school years might help them cope with cutbacks in state funding. Crandall said that could let them trim everything from utilities to transportation costs.
The plan, to be formally unveiled next week, also expands how schools can use the money they now get in donations. Current law limits the funding to extracurricular activities; this plan would let the districts spend anything they get on supplies and other one-time expenses.
It also contains some changes in laws governing borrowing.
But it is the section on changing the school year that could have the broadest impact.
Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, D-Tempe, said it's not an even trade to extend the school day while cutting the number of days in class.
"If you keep them there more hours in the day, as a former high school teacher myself, I certainly can tell you you're certainly going to run into some attention span issues," he said.
Schapira said there also are financial implications.
First, he fears that school districts may try to cut the salaries of teachers by 5.5 percent based on them having to work 10 fewer days, even with the longer work day.
"I've been hearing from some school districts that's exactly what they would do," he said.
Crandall said he doubts any district that hopes to keep its best teachers would ever try such a maneuver. Anyway, he said, state law already allows districts to scale back salaries in financial emergencies, with or without changing the length of the school year.
Parents also would be affected, Schapira said.
"That's 10 more days a year where the parent has to find a way to have their kid be supervised," he said. "Now they have 10 more days a year they have to pay for daycare."
Schapira also said the proposal violates a measure approved by voters in 2000 which permanently added six-tenths of a cent to the state sales tax. The language of that provision, he said, says money raised would go to extending the school year by five days, to 180 days.
Crandall disagreed with Schapira's assessment of the legality of the plan.
"We're maintaining the minutes," he said. Anyway, Crandall said, there already is precedent for what he wants, pointing to school districts that now have four-day weeks.
"If shaving off 40 days doesn't violate (the ballot measure), how does shaving off five to 10?" he asked. "It's the minutes that are critical, not the number of days you're in session."
Crandall and Goodale acknowledged the provisions in their plan are simply an interim solution to the state's funding problems. That has resulted in lawmakers failing to fully fund state aid to public schools, including a voter-approved mandate for annual inflationary adjustments.
Crandall said, though, there just isn't the cash to provide more money for public education.
"The bigger challenge we have is everybody is asking for a piece of the pie," he said.
One of the biggest pieces, Crandall said, is the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which currently provides free care for one out of every six state residents. While the Legislature is moving to trim that, he said health care will continue to make demands on the budget.
Goodale said the political reality is that she and Crandall are just two of the 90 legislators.
"It takes a lot of convincing," she said. "And that's part of the challenge of changing the culture of thought of where the budget goes. Every member on the floor of the House has an idea of what properly funding means, what my district means, to education, health care, public safety."
One other change would alter the laws that now govern the use of donations.
Arizona law provides individuals with a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, up to $200 a year, for money donated to public schools for extracurricular activities. Crandall said he believes some of that money is not spent wisely, with students able to seek donations from neighbors for things like a class trip to SeaWorld.
The plan would limit the use of these proceeds to $200 a year per pupil for out-of-state activities and $800 for any foreign trips.
On the other side of the equation, it would permit schools to use the cash for some academic uses, ranging from supplies to professional development activities of teachers.