Scott Mooneyham: Extending school year isn’t so simple

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 29, 2011

RALEIGH ó After years spent earning my living watching politics, Iíve reached a conclusion regarding the two predominant political parties: Democrats are far too prone to blindly follow the advice of experts, while Republicans are far too prone to blithely ignore it.
If that observation has some validity ó and I could provide dozens of anecdotes suggesting that it does ó then it should come as no surprise that Republican legislators have run into more unintended consequence from their unprecedented spate of bill-passing and major policy changes from earlier this year.
Problems continue arising from the decision to increase the school year from 180 to 185 days.
That decision, by the way, came in the form of a provision tucked into the state budget. Considering the change as part of a separate bill might have provided an opportunity to hear from one or two of those dreaded experts, say someone well-versed in local school system finance.
One of those experts might have mentioned to lawmakers that five extra days of schools would mean running buses five extra days a year, an expense for which the state provided no additional money.
Local school systems also have to figure out how to juggle budgets in which most employees are paid with state dollars but some are paid with local funds.
And school officials arenít happy about trying to plug those additional instructional days into a school calendar in which the school year cannot begin before Aug. 25 and must end by June 10.
In Republican lawmakersí defense, few people would argue that increasing the school year and classroom instructional time isnít a good idea. Instructional time is seen as a key to improving academic performance, and U.S schools lag many countries in that regard.
But wouldnít it have been smarter to work out the details before putting a mandate in place? Why make an unnecessary mess out of a noble policy aim?
The schools do have another year to fit all the pieces together, as legislators saw fit to allow waivers from the requirement. With the budget bill passed in June, every school system in the state requested the waiver.
The question now is whether the State Board of Education will be granting a second round of waivers for the 2012-13 school year.
If so, why the big rush to pass legislation? Why not file a bill, talk about the logistics, and maybe hear from some people who have been there and done that?
Legislators need to show the courage to hear from people who may disagree with them, or may just offer a different perspective on the details of the ideas being considered.
That doesnít mean that they have to go along with the advice.
The problem with unthinkingly accepting the advice of policy experts is that their expertise can be narrow, their focus limited.
Elected representatives ought to be thinking broadly, balancing multiple interests.
Itís not easy to accomplish that balancing act when you donít put everything on the scale.

Scott Mooneyham writes about state government for Capitol Press Association.