Counting class time in hours offers flexibility

A shift in accounting for school time in hours instead of days should make little difference in the quality and quantity of instruction, but it could make a big difference in flexibility for school districts and individual schools.

A bill sponsored by Reps. Shannon Erickson of Beaufort, Bill Herbkersman of Bluffton and Andy Patrick of Hilton Head Island would require districts to offer 1,170 hours of instruction at the high school level and 1,080 hours at the elementary and middle school levels. The change would replace the required 180 days of instruction.

Teachers' 10 days of in-service and professional development also could be counted in hours instead of days.

That comes at the request of state Superintendent Mick Zais, who wants teachers to have the option to accomplish professional development through online classes and from home.

The bill states that districts or individual schools could determine the number of hours in an instructional day.

The goal is flexibility, and what's wrong with that? One of the criticisms is that it might encourage school districts to go to a four-day school week. And why not? If the hours of instruction during those four days are productive, what difference does it make?

It could make a difference in a district's operational costs, and given today's tight budgets, the flexibility to go to a four-day week to save on cafeteria food, bus fuel and other operational costs is welcome.

And there's nothing forcing districts to shorten the week. The change just gives them the option.

One of the bill's critics, Rep. Joe Neal of Hopkins, said the bill moves South Carolina in the wrong direction. Students need more instructional time, not fewer days.

But counting school time in hours and not days doesn't change the minimum threshold.

Most students probably could benefit from more instructional time, whether that comes in longer school days or more of them. If Neal thinks more instructional time is warranted, he should push for more hours -- or days. Making possible a four-day school week certainly shouldn't be used as an excuse to reduce state funding of education.

The real issue isn't the number of hours or days required, but how those hours and days are used in the classroom. Are we getting the most out of instructional time? What can we do to help teachers in that regard? What can we do with testing schedules to reduce the number of wasted days at the end of the school year?

And if lawmakers truly are looking to give school districts flexibility in their calendars, they can do away with the requirement that students not start school before the third Monday of August unless a school is on a year-round calendar. That provision was left unchanged in this bill.

The start-date requirement became law in 2006 at the urging of the tourism industry and parents who said they wanted a longer summer for their children. But there's no good educational purpose behind the state's micro-managing school calendars to that degree.

Neal's objections to the bill kept it from getting its third and final reading in the House on Friday, so it failed to move to the Senate in time to meet last week's cross-over deadline. It's not expected to be taken up in the Senate this year.

If the bill stalls this year, supporters should push the idea again next year.