DES MOINES --- Iowa school children and teachers may have to start counting the hours, not the days, until school ends.
Officials with the state Department of Education said Thursday they plan to propose legislation next week seeking to change the current way of calculating yearly classroom instruction based upon a minimum of 180 school days to a system that would be based upon a minimum of 1,170 hours of instruction by a certified teacher between July 1 and June 30 of each school year.
The hourly calculation would be based upon a 6.5 hours of daily instruction for 180 school days during a school calendar set by local school boards after public input from their constituents, said Konni Cawiezell, who serves as the department's legislative liaison. The hourly count would include time between class periods but it would not include lunch time, recess or parent-teacher conferences, she said.
"This will not be a radical change," said Cawiezell. "This really just gives schools more flexibility in making sure they give kids all of the instructional hours that they really have coming to them."
Carol Greta, the department's legal counsel, said issue comes up every year of bad winter weather where schools may dismiss classes due to a fast-moving storm in the forenoon, delay the start of the school day by two hours or dismiss students early in the afternoon, but the day is still counted as a 5.5-hour school day under the 180-day attendance requirement even though the actual hours of instruction were something less.
"The real value to students in this bill is that right now the law is written so that if schools have weather-related late starts or early dismissals, they don't have to make up the day at all even if the early dismissal was at 9 o'clock in the morning and kids were only there for 30 minutes. Under the proposed floor, they would have to make up all of the instructional hours missed, whether it was weather-related or not, and so kids will really get the amount of instructional hours that they should be getting," she said.
The new approach will stop what Greta called "all of those crazy calculations" but she conceded the change may not be popular with school kids.
"Kids may not like this bill," she said. "We fully recognize that, but you know what, five to 10 years from now they can look back and say, yeah, I got all the education that was due to me."
Legislative reaction was somewhat mixed Thursday, with several key education committee members taking a wait-and-see posture until they had a chance to read the department's proposed legislative change.
"It's an interesting concept," said Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "I think I'd have to see an hourly schedule next to a permanent day schedule just to see how they juxtapose. At first blush, it sounds like an interesting concept but the devil's always in the details. I think this would be one that we would have to take some time and think about the consequences."
Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, said he was interested in exploring the details, especially if it addresses his ongoing concern that most school districts are seeking waivers to start classes before the Sept. 1 threshold set by state law.
"If it's something that we can end the rubber stamp on the school start date, it could be a good thing," he said.
Cawiezell said the department approach, if adopted, would get her agency "out of the waiver business" because it would put calendar issues at the discretion of local school officials.
Ben Norman, a lobbyist for the School Administrators of Iowa, said there are a sizable number of administrators who would favor that approach over the current system, but he added he wants to see more details before commenting further.