Reducing the length of the traditional school week has become a trend across Idaho, with 42 of the Gem State's 115 school districts cutting instructional days from five to four. As vice chair of the House Education Committee, Pingree Republican Rep. Julie VanOrden has been on the frontline of the debate over whether it's best to trim school weeks in order to save money. She joined Dr. Paul Hill, of the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho, and Marsing School District Superintendent Norm Stewart in July for a panel discussion on the realities of shortened school weeks. VanOrden warned attendees that while reduced school weeks offer advantages like greater flexibility for families and savings on transportation, they must be carefully weighed against disadvantages—not least of which is fewer days in class.
"This is where data becomes pretty important," she said at the time.
Boise Weekly caught up with VanOrden to discuss four-day school weeks, retaining talented teachers and how the state will keep pace with the recommendations of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's Education Task Force.
How is Idaho doing, education-wise?
I think we're doing OK. I think there are a lot of numbers that people have published that might say we're not doing a good enough job, but I hear about our students going on [to have] good lives, successful careers. There's always room for improvement. I think that's where we're headed with a lot of the changes we've made in education but, overall, I think our kids get an education in this state. There are other factors that contribute to what others perceive as a downfall in education. The economy has a lot to do with what goes on in education.
What are the challenges facing education in Idaho?
All of us have seen numbers on how much we pay our teachers and how much we spend on education, and I think we're addressing that right now, moving toward putting more dollars down into the schools and also for what we appropriate to the districts for teacher salaries. We're moving in a great direction that way.
What do you see as satisfactory progress?
All I can say right now is that the Legislature has recognized we needed to make improvements there, and we're just going to keep going with the career ladder [a tiered salary structure that pegs pay increases to experience, certifications and performance evaluations].
People have asked me if I see other things going on in education. My priority right now is to push for funding for the career ladder—maybe even get that beginning teacher wage up higher than we planned in a shorter amount of time.
What makes the career ladder so central to your vision for improving education in Idaho?
It was one of the recommendations from the Governor's Task Force; there was a committee that worked on it. I think we worked hard this last session to be able to get at least consensus on the career ladder. I think it's important that teachers' salaries go up, but again, just remember that this is an appropriation that we make to the district. What the teachers get paid depends on what happens on the local level.
What would it take to keep talented teachers in Idaho?
Our beginning salary was quite low—we moved in a direction with this career ladder to address that. The other piece is that teachers are leaving because the wages are higher [elsewhere], and in year three or year four in the career ladder, there's an opportunity for teachers to earn more for being "master teachers." It doesn't mean they have to have a master's degree, but those will again be up to local districts.
How does this program help keep teachers both in the state and in classrooms?
The other point is keeping teachers in the classroom. A lot of teachers get to the point that their next step is to be an administrator, and then they'd step out of the classroom. That was another point with the "master teacher," that a teacher would be able to stay in the classroom and still make more money, because that's where we want to keep those really good teachers who get to that point. I hate to see them leave for administrative jobs, because we can benefit from having them in the classroom, but as the system goes right now, their next step is to go become an administrator or take some administrative job. We started working in that direction with leadership premiums, which we passed two years ago.
You've been wary of savings to school districts transitioning to four-day school weeks. If savings are so low, why do school districts continue to cut days from school weeks?
There's an initial cost savings. It's not ongoing. There are some school districts that found they saved in places where they didn't think they were going to. When I talked about substitute [teacher] costs, there were districts that were seeing savings there.
The other thing is, there are some charter schools that are doing a four-day week in my area. So if a family has children in the charter school and they have children in the traditional school, then that poses a problem with the family because they have some children who are in and some who are out.
I think a lot of districts are facing that, too.
The governor has set some ambitious goals for getting Idaho students into the state's colleges and universities by 2020. How will we meet those benchmarks?
There are pieces in place right now. In the last four years at the Legislature, they started what's called the Advanced Opportunities program that Sen. [Steven] Thayn started working on. Allowing kids to get credits while they're still in high school and to move through school at a quicker rate so they can move on—those pieces are in place. I think the governor's goal was, not only do they go to the universities and colleges, that they go to post-secondary education to some degree, like a certificate.