DES MOINES — Next year, students across Iowa probably will stop counting down the days until school ends.
Instead, they’ll have to count down the hours.
Lawmakers are poised to approve legislation this year that does away with the 180 instructional days requirement school calendars are based on and change that to 1,080 instructional hours.
Proponents say the switch would give local school boards more say over how to design a school year that’s best for their students.
The state’s top education lobbying groups — the Iowa Association of School Boards, Iowa State Education Association, the School Administrators of Iowa, Professional Educators of Iowa and the Iowa Catholic Conference — are either for or neutral on the bill.
And a switch also would have Iowa join the majority of states in the country that count instructional time in hours instead of days.
Iowa is one of 18 states and the District of Columbia that still uses a days calculation, according to the Education Commission of the States.
But even though a switch could be considered more of a scheduling matter than an instructional one, it took a long time and several false starts to get to this point, and nothing is certain yet.
“I don’t think our opposition was based on hours versus days,” said Iowa State Education Association executive director Mary Jane Cobb. “But they could never describe to us what constituted an instructional hour. Did it mean time spent passing between classes? There were questions like this that they couldn’t answer.”
The union opposed the change in previous sessions and when it was first introduced this year, but, Cobb said, the questions have been answered in recent days with lawmakers.
There actually are two ways the change could take place. One, the new hours plan is included in the Senate version of the education reform overhaul. There’s also an independent bill that deals specifically with the switch that passed out of the House on an 84-16 vote last week. So, the hours switch could come into play as part of the education reform package or as its own piece of legislation.
The language in both bills practically is identical.
An instructional hour does not include lunch periods, but it “may include passing time between classes.” It also includes time spent on parent-teacher conferences.
Kathy Christie, a vice president with the Education Commission of the States, said what counts as instructional time and what doesn’t is a “gray area” from state to state and typically is the toughest part about getting a bill passed.
For example, Idaho’s law explicitly excludes up to 22 hours of staff training and staff meetings. Illinois excludes study hall, and Kentucky excludes passing time “of more than 5 minutes.”
A provision that instructional time include time “with a licensed teacher” was struck from the Iowa House and Senate proposals after concerns from the teachers union and the lobbyist for one of two online learning companies that operates in the state. The union wanted to make sure instructional time included time spent with teacher’s aides and paraprofessionals.
The online company had a different concern.
“We want licensed teachers. We are fully in support of that,” said Bob Rafferty, a former Quad-City area lawmaker and current attorney with the Brick Gentry law firm who counts the online education company K12 among his clients.
K12 operates in the Clayton Ridge School District. The other online education company, Connections Academy, operates in the Cumberland-Anita- Massena School District. Both recruit students throughout the state to open enroll in their programs through the two districts.
“What we were concerned about was the word ‘with’ from a proximity standpoint,” Rafferty said. “We weren’t sure how they were going to define ‘with’ because that could mean in the same room.”
A definition like that would have pretty much blown up the whole online learning model.
Still, not everyone is sure the move is for the best. Rep. Mary Mascher, a retired teacher from Iowa City, was one of 16 Democrats who voted against the House bill when it came up for a vote.
She worried that “cash-strapped school districts” may set hours based on their pocketbooks, for example, holding four-day school weeks to save on transportation and building operation costs, as opposed to making the decision based on educational reasons.
Davenport Democrat Rep. Cindy Winckler said changing days to hours was like changing draperies in a home: It looks nice, but “it doesn’t increase the overall value.”
Mike Cormack, a former state lawmaker who lobbies for the Iowa Department of Education, thinks the Instructional Time Task Force report that recommended the switch to hours from days made the difference that pushed lawmakers to support the change this year.
The report was one of six task force reports called for in last year’s education reform package. Five have been released and a sixth on competency-based education is due later this year.
“You had a group of stakeholders that said this is the way we should go,” Cormack said.
Still, lawmakers seem unwilling to tackle another school calendar issue: when the school year should start.
Even the committee that studied instructional time couldn’t come to an agreement and had to issue majority and minority reports. For the record, the majority report said the state should keep the system as it is, allowing school districts to apply for waivers, which are typically granted. The minority report said schools should start in the first week of September, no exceptions.
“That’s something we’ll probably have to address later,” Cormack said.