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Fine Print: Longer School Days, School Year

Bill would fund pilot program in up to 25 schools districts.

What it is: A bill that would create a pilot program for extending the school day and school year, with the state providing a financial incentive. The legislation, sponsored by some high-powered Democrats, will be heard in committee today.

What it means: Having kids spend more time in the classroom is not a new idea, but it has been restricted by a lack of financing. This new approach calls for rolling it out a few districts at a time. The proposal calls for up to 25 districts to be chosen to test longer schedules and calendars, with $144 million being made available over three years through private contributions and state tax credits.

The stated aim: “The goal of the pilot program shall be to study the effects of a longer school day and school year on advancing student achievement, enhancing the overall school learning environment, and increasing student enrichment opportunities and educational offerings.”

The sponsors: The bill is cosponsored by state Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), two of the state’s more outspoken legislators on education matters. Support from Ruiz, chairman of the Senate’s education committee, carries a lot of weight.

The financing: The pilot program would be administered by the state Department of Education and financed through a funding mechanism that has gotten attention in education circles lately. Instead of the state paying directly, the program would be financed with private corporate contributions in exchange for one-for-one tax credits. It is the same financing mechanism that has been proposed for the Opportunity Scholarship Act, the controversial school-voucher bill.

Fiscal analysis: The state’s Office of Legislative Services last week outlined where and when the costs would be borne. According to the analysis, it would amount to $24 million less in tax revenues in the first year, $48 million less in the second year, and $72 million less in the third year.

The process: Districts would apply to the state to be part of the pilot program, providing details about how they would extend the school day and school year, and how they would track the impact of the changes. Among a number of conditions, each proposal would need the support of a majority of students and staff for the district to apply.

In other business: The Senate's education committee has a busy agenda today in its first deliberative meeting since the summer. Among the bills being considered is the proposed Tabitha’s Law, which would require schools and families to alert each other when a student is absent. The proposal is named after a Tennessee teenager who didn’t go to school one day and wasn’t discovered to be missing for several hours when the school and her family failed to communicate with each other about her absence. The bill has already passed the Assembly.

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