Gov. Chris Christie called for an attitude of choice in New Jersey during his State of the State address Tuesday.
But education advocates are concerned Christie's proposal to extend the school day and year sounds more like a mandate that could take choice away from school districts and parents.
Calling the current 180-day school calendar "antiquated, both educationally and culturally," Christie said that, working with Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, he would shortly present a proposal to lengthen the school day and year.
Representatives of education associations said any discussion should include educators and parents and be based on research and evidence.
New Jersey School Boards Association Executive Director Lawrence S. Feinsod supported the concept, but he noted the length of the school day and year is negotiated locally in teacher contracts. He said about a third of 2013-14 contracts already call for increased work time.
A longer school year also could impact the state's tourism industry, which relies on summer family vacations for a large share of its revenue.
Many districts already offer before- or after-school and summer programs that lengthen the school day and year. Advocates said districts should be able to target their time where it is most needed and to the students who need it most.
"The American Federation of Teachers New Jersey is concerned that Gov. Chris Christie calls for extending school days and years without mandating a collaborative planning process that has helped make these programs successful," union President Donna M. Chiera said in a statement. She said any plan must begin with an evaluation of what is already working or lacking in a school district, including after-school and summer programs.
"How can we expect a different result if a district simply extends a program that is not highly effective?" Chiera asked.
Several people questioned Christie's sincerity. They cited the governor's veto Monday of a bill that would create a commission to study mandating full-day kindergarten, which would double the school day for children in the 20 percent of districts currently offering a half-day program. Public preschool expansion also has stalled.
"The governor should properly fund the school year and day we now provide for our students before putting more cost burdens on New Jersey's struggling school districts," said David Sciarra of the Education Law Center.
"Before any changes are implemented, we must ensure that they are truly in the best interests of students and not simply politically expedient," Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, said in a statement. He noted that many high school students already are on buses at 7 a.m. Those who participate in after-school sports or activities may not get home until 6 p.m., still facing homework.
Locally, school officials said it is hard to comment without details. Some already offer programs that extend the day, but not all students participate.
Hamilton Township Superintendent Michelle Cappelluti said those schools offer morning tutoring sessions in language arts and math in the elementary grades.
"However, largely due to the fact that transportation is not provided by the district, the enrollment in these programs is not as high as we'd like," she said. "Many of our students do not get enough support at home and lengthening their school day may be the key to raising their achievement."
Extending the school day and year has become a national issue in the last few years as national test results show other countries, some with longer school years, outperforming American students. But the challenge is identifying how much time is spent actually teaching and how to make the best use of the time. About a dozen states currently support some extended-learning programs. New York and Massachusetts provide grants for participating districts.
The National Association for Year-Round Education has supported a so-called balanced school calendar that has several shorter vacations rather than one long summer vacation, during which students often forget what they have learned. A 2007 study found a "summer learning gap" between low-income students and their higher-income peers starts in elementary school.
Jennifer Davis, a founder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning, posted a statement saying that research shows how time is added does matter, and when done thoughtfully it can produce powerful results. She said expanding time is a proven strategy, especially for high-poverty students. She said she encouraged Christie to engage communities in the process of designing a modern school schedule.
The current school calendar dates to the country's agricultural past, when children were needed in the summer to farm. Tourism areas still rely heavily on family summer vacations and student workers. Virginia in the 1980s passed the so-called Kings Dominion law, which prevents school from opening before Labor Day unless they get a state waiver. As more districts request waivers, there have been efforts to repeal that law.
Diane Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism, said they already have noticed changes as school districts in New Jersey and other states adjust school schedules. She said June has gotten slower because students are still in school and the peak part of the season, which used to be well into August, is now late July and early August because some schools open in August.
She said touristic areas are adapting to the change by promoting the "shoulder seasons" in spring and fall to couples without children and the growing population of older Baby Boomers, who have more flexibility and can help stretch the season into the Christmas holidays.
"We are looking at how we market and who we market to, based on when they can come," Wieland said.
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