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Supporters highlight merits of 4-day school week bill

SISD wants pilot program to eliminate Friday classes

Posted: February 15, 2013 - 5:06pm  |  Updated: February 17, 2013 - 1:20am
Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, left, Chair of the House Education Committee, and Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, listen to Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, discribe the merits of House Bill 21 which would allow one Alaska school district to adopt a four-day school week for a three-year trial.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, left, Chair of the House Education Committee, and Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, listen to Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, discribe the merits of House Bill 21 which would allow one Alaska school district to adopt a four-day school week for a three-year trial.

Allowing school districts to adopt a four-day school week would hand off local control over education and give districts another tool to address families’ needs in rural areas, proponents of House Bill 21 told the House Education Committee Friday morning.

Reps. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, and Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, who introduced the bill, testified before the committee to make the case for their bill, which would authorize a three-year pilot program for one interested school district that would allow schools within that district to adopt a four-day school week, provided school communities supported the idea of doing so.

“Now, this pilot program will be very helpful to some schools,” said Peggy Wilson. “It allows time for students, parents and teachers to do subsistence gathering, allows time for teachers for professional development without loss of student-teacher contact hours, allows students to work if necessary to help their family, and it allows time for teachers, parents and students to get to medical — you know, in the rural areas, sometimes it takes three days to get to medical appointments and whatnot and get back.”

Tammie Wilson framed the bill as the state government’s opportunity to contribute to the education reform many legislators and state officials have said schools must implement.

“If we’re asking school districts to think outside the box, we have to be willing to do it as well,” Tammie Wilson said.

Reps. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, and Paul Seaton, R-Homer, asked whether changing to a four-day school week could affect bargaining agreements with school staff.

“In this particular instance, the teachers are going to go five days,” Peggy Wilson replied. “And the teachers are agreeing to this.”

Tammie Wilson compared the bill to “school choice” measures that have been proposed by other legislators, including Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, chairwoman of the committee, who has sponsored a bill to allow nonprofit organizations and other unelected entities to operate charter schools.

“This bill gives choice,” said Tammie Wilson. “It gives choice to a school district.”

Saddler, the most inquisitive committee member throughout the meeting, asked whether schools within whichever school district is selected for the pilot program could keep a five-day school week if they so choose.

“What the bill does is give them the option of four days,” Tammie Wilson said. “They could absolutely do five. … It’s about local control and the community and what they see fit.”

A few members of the public testified over the phone. Among them was Southeast Island School District Superintendent Lauren Burch, whose district unsuccessfully applied with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to adopt a four-day school week last year. The district’s efforts to switch over to a four-day school week spurred Peggy Wilson, who represents the area, and Tammie Wilson to prefile H.B. 21 last month.

“We have overwhelming support for it,” Burch said of the four-day school week proposal. He said the district estimates it could increase attendance by 20 percent if students no longer had to attend class Fridays.

“We won’t save any money on it,” Burch added. “We will offer opportunities on those Fridays for kids that are behind on things or have individual challenges.”

Fridays will also be used for professional development time for teachers, Burch told the committee. He also said at least one school in the district voted against having a four-day school week at a public meeting last year and said its choice would be respected, while adding, “I kind of expect those sites to come around to that a little bit at a time.”
Rep. Pete Higgins, R-Fairbanks, attended the meeting despite not sitting on the Education Committee. He said he thinks the pilot program in H.B. 21 should be broader, ensuring that if the Southeast Island School District is interested and other districts are as well, they would not be in competition for the opportunity.
"I think we should be able to open this up to all the districts instead of just one district," Higgins said. "Then you could actually compare the pilot programs and see how it’s working."
Tammie Wilson said she is not opposed to allowing more than one school district to pilot a four-day school week, and Peggy Wilson indicated she agrees. The sponsors also noted, however, that the DEED already has the power to authorize a four-day school week if the commissioner signs off on it.

Although Gattis said at the beginning of the committee meeting that she intended to see H.B. 21 moved out of the Education Committee on Friday and another bill was scheduled to be heard at the meeting, she called an at-ease an hour into the meeting so committee members could attend a House majority caucus press conference.

Gattis said the at-ease was supposed to last 20 minutes, but almost one hour elapsed before legislators returned and gaveled the meeting back into session.

After apologizing for the longer-than-anticipated break, Gattis said the meeting had run out of time and adjourned before further testimony or motions on H.B. 21 could be offered.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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