OPINION | The four-day school week retreat and surrender


The four-day school week is creeping across Minnesota’s landscape like buckthorn, milfoil, or Asian carp. We must stop this educational policy shift now. It’s bad for students, families and schools. It’s bad for Minnesota.

Recently, the Lake Superior School District announced it would join the small but growing number of Minnesota school districts implementing the four-day school week. They’re doing it to save money, not because it will yield a stronger education for the district’s students. The Lake Superior School District, like nearly every Minnesota district, is facing growing costs and declining revenue. With the State of Minnesota allocating fewer educational dollars, school boards are raising property taxes and cutting programs to balance budgets.

LSSD’s “frequently asked questions about the four-day school week” website page offers three reasons for the schedule change. The first reason, “Reduction of costs without reducing educational programs or course offerings,” is followed by “Projected savings are between $200,000 and $250,000.” The third reason, “Instruction programs will remain the same; slightly longer school days and class periods; no reduction in the total amount of instructional time over the school year,” isn’t actually a reason. It’s an anticipatory response to parent and regulator concerns, not an argument for dramatic curricular change.

So, really, the only reason to shift to a four-day school week is cost-savings. Which raises the question, how, exactly, is $250,000 saved?

The school district principally identifies four areas that are essentially the same thing: marginal cost savings opportunities. Citing reduced need for school bus transportation, food service, building heating, and labor costs, LSSD expects to realize savings by not spending money on those items on Fridays. Except, as any economist or accountant will tell you, it doesn’t work out quite as neatly in practice as it does in theory.

The big idea behind marginal cost is the change in total cost when production changes by a single unit. This is most easily understood in the context of industrial production. If I make 100 buggy whips a day, the cost of making one more is not 1/100th of the total but likely something less than that because of economies of scale. Because my fixed costs -raw materials, rent, utilities, insurance, that sort of thing- are presumably covered by producing and selling the first 100 buggy whips, I can produce a 101st buggy whip at lower cost, charge less for it and earn greater profit as a result.

Schools don’t seek profit. Because they’re not motivated by profit’s pursuit, something that apparently troubles conservative activists, marginal cost theory must be modified to a school’s situation but the idea still holds. Think of it in reverse. Rather than expanding production at lower cost, four-day-a-week schools hope to reduce overall spending by reducing marginal costs while preserving their core mission. In other words, four-day-a-week schools hope to do in four days what they used to do in five but at four days’ total cost or at least closer to a four-day week’s actual costs.

Marginal costs, whether increasing or decreasing, are not equal. Let’s use school buses as an example. LSSD plans to reduce marginal bus transportation by costs by 20%. Dropping one school day means buses roll four days a week rather than five. The savings aren’t however a perfect 20% but some lesser amount because many fixed costs remain constant. Using school buses less extends their useful life but that’s a future not an immediate cost savings. Modest fuel savings are quickly negated by bus use on the “closed” day. The most immediate cost savings come from cutting bus driver hours, taking a 20% bite from bus driver income.

Minnesotans are learning that four-day school week cost savings are mostly coming from reducing pay to the lowest compensated school employees. Hourly employees -bus drivers, classroom assistants, food service workers and administrative staff- take the pay cut hit. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Families experience increased expenses in the four-day school week. Somebody has to look after the kids during that fifth day, whether it’s a fee-for-service arrangement at school or other daycare. The community message becomes uncomfortably clear: families can’t count on their communities to educate kids. The result is diminishing confidence in public infrastructure, a key conservative public policy goal.

Most disturbingly is the four-day school week’s expressed faith that shoving five days of learning into four won’t compromise a student’s education. Since good data addressing this question is largely non-existent, schools are taking considerable risk to save themselves a few bucks.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. The four-day school represents retreat from Minnesota’s high educational standards. Cost accountability is one thing; miserly, Dickensian budget grubbing is quite another. Minnesota’s downward spiral is accelerated by the four-day school week. Without the best public education possible for Minnesota’s school kids, opportunity evaporates. Absent expanding opportunity, Minnesota has, at best, a compromised future. In truth, that’s no future at all.