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Longer school year idea doomed from the start

By Matt Pommer

President Barack Obama says America must improve its education system to retain its world economic leadership. Among the ideas he floated in a September talk was extending the school year.

Sound familiar? It should because former Gov. Tommy Thompson sounded the same theme some 18 years ago. Better education would help Wisconsin young people get jobs in the 21st century, Thompson suggested.

A longer school year is unpopular in Wisconsin’s important tourism industry, which has long held clout in the Legislature. That’s why public schools in Wisconsin can’t start in August as they do in some other states.

The tourism industry initially fought to delay any school start until after Labor Day. But that would mean in some years that schools couldn’t open until Sept. 8. The University of Wisconsin, which also is affected by the state law, argued that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get a full semester completed before the Christmas break.

The idea of a longer school year is doomed at the outset because it would cost more. Even if you think teachers would work an additional month for the same pay, there are other costs in running schools.

Cooks, bus drivers, crossing guards are among those paid on an hourly basis in most school districts. Utility bills such as electricity and water will be higher when school is in session for an extra month.

Hand-in-hand with the prospect of higher school costs is the mounting hysteria about the level of taxation even though state and federal income-tax rates are lower than they were 25 years ago.

Some would have you believe that taxes are high largely due to “waste, fraud and corruption” at all levels of government. The so-called Tea Party, which likes that concept, is against taxes in general.

Cutting government spending is a popular theme. State employees have had to take multiple furlough days as a budget-cutting maneuver. Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, the Republican candidate for governor, has proposed a county budget calling for workers to take 26 unpaid furlough days in 2011.

Governments resort to furloughs rather than layoffs because governments would have to pay the unemployment compensation costs. Unlike the private sector, the public sector does not participate in the jobless compensation system.

Furloughs won’t work for teachers. Getting lower-paid substitutes for eight or 26 furlough days would disrupt what is being taught — especially in high schools.

In short, we don’t want longer school terms if it costs us any more taxes. Is it the waste, fraud and corruption concept? Or maybe we’d rather just think you don’t have to pay for expensive government programs.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.


  1. Matt, you’re absolutely correct. There were a lot of things not to like about Tommy . . . but he did care about education. Lengthen the school year? It should be done, but it’s an absolute non-starter, for the main reason that the tourism industry would go bananas.

  2. Let’s see if I have this correct: The “tourism industry … has long held clout in the Legislature?” You mean from *clout,* that they make heavy campaign contributions? And our politicians are run by cash dollars? Horrors!!!

    Something tells me that if we had public funding of campaigns these politicians would find a way to do the right thing.

    Even the Chamber of Commerce (also heavy campaign contributors) are calling for more qualified workers (read: Americans are not qualified so we have to import cheap foreign workers).

    I get it now.

  3. There’s also the costly issue of potentially retrofitting old school-buildings for air-conditioning. It’s bearable with the school year as it is now because there’s only a bit of overlap with the hot weather — but adding a month of summer classes in un-air-conditioned buildings would be a wretched experience and not conducive to a whole lot of learning.

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