An Elected School Board Could Solve the Longer School Day Debacle

Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel does not have to explain himself. He doesn't have to, to parents, students or any taxpayer. When he said he wanted to extend the school day, he was literally under no obligation to consult with anyone he did not appoint. State law allows him to extend the school day without working with parents, students or the educators charged with implementation. State law allows him to appoint the chief executive of the school district and every single member of the Chicago school board. This is unlike every district surrounding Chicago where residents elect their school board.

In suburban districts, parents can bump into school board members at the grocery store, at church or at the movies. They can make it clear that when they don't like the decisions being made, there will be no re-election.

If Chicagoans had an elected, representative school board, concerns over the longer day could have been ironed out long before there was any talk of implementing it. The Board would have to listen to the public and not just the mayor. One concern echoed by many taxpayers was that there was no plan for the use of the extra school time. Even if there was a plan, there was no funding for additional time. After his nearly year-long campaign for the longer school day, Mayor Emanuel finally admitted that there is still no plan:

I would hope now that we'd stop debating about the time and start having a real discussion about how to use it - Chicago Sun-Times April 11, 2012

The whole campaign was fueled by -- as Rolling Stone writer Rick Perlstein may put it -- "Rahmpraganda." Big city mayors and governors, like Wisconsin's Scott Walker, are taking great pride in being tough on workers who belong to unions, such as teachers and school staff. This guarantees big political contributions from the nation's wealthy elite.

Parents, students and the Chicago Teachers Union have requested a discussion over what the school day should look like from the beginning. Back in September 2011, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said,

"The longer school day campaign is nothing more than a political gimmick based on lies, misinformation and half-truths. And a gimmick, even if CPS calls it "education reform," harms the children of Chicago. They need rich, thoughtful learning, not empty political gestures."

20 years of Chicago School Reform in 2 minutes

This campaign would have been a wonderful opportunity for the new mayor to listen to the public and hear concerns over his proposal. He might have won over a few people in the process. However, he chose to do the bare minimum for his constituents.

The way the laws are written, one lone actor can make decisions that effect 400,000 young people. These decisions do not have to be based in any kind of research or have popular support.

This is certainly the case for the seven-and-a-half hour longer day, which has no research to back up claims that it will improve student outcomes. Extending the school day to seven hours as Mayor Emanuel is now promoting, has no research to back it up either. In fact, without the funding necessary for a full curriculum, there is no way to even plan how that day would look.

Teachers for the most part do not seem to mind working more if they are compensated for the extra time. However, finding extra time will be a challenge. Recently, the University of Illinois released a study which shows that teachers "... work for 10 hours and 48 minutes on average during a standard school day, and spend almost an additional two hours working at home in the evening."

When a silent majority of parents organized and became very vocal about their objections to the seven-and-a-half hour day, they were largely ignored. Perhaps Mayor Emanuel considered their objections "noise associated with change" as he described the parents, students, and educators who protested the unilateral school closings voted on earlier this year.

These concerned parents formed coalition "Chicago Parents for Quality Education," released a white paper and participated in protests and media outreach over their objections to the longer school day. Some parents who voiced objections started a website called "Concerned Pioneer Parents" which is a clearinghouse of information from parents who have children at the thirteen schools that elected to extend the school day this school year.

I was very unhappy when the 7.5 hour day was announced because there was no parental input. Our school had a 6.5 hour day which parents and teachers had voted to support in the spring of 2011. I loved that my child's week included daily recess and 5 hours of specials with a 6.5 hour day. Although the dedicated teachers and staff at Skinner North have made a seven-and-a-half hour day work with $150 K -- I wonder how they can continue without guaranteed funding and a growing student body. I also feel that a seven-and-a-half hour day is limiting my child's ability to pursue other interests outside of school, impeding his family time and depriving him of the rest he needs. -

Dolores Fischinger-Gloss, Skinner North 4th-grade parent

This whole situation could have been much easier had Mayor Emanuel worked with all groups before coming to a conclusion. Without an elected, representative school board to provide checks and balances to his power, we can expect more of the same from the fifth floor.