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Editorial: Get real on cost of longer school day

Updated: November 16, 2011 1:25AM

Less than 48 hours after first hearing about it, the Chicago Teachers Union on Thursday threw cold water on an effort by Chicago Public Schools officials to extend the school day this year.

Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard on Tuesday had offered elementary teachers a 2 percent raise in exchange for adding 90 minutes to the day and five days to the year, starting in January.

The total for a longer elementary day for half a year? A mere $15 million, according to CPS.

The CTU’s quick rejection of the deal helps no one. The sooner we add to CPS’ woefully short day, the better for students and teachers.

And the sooner CPS starts talking honestly about the cost of a longer day — which even CTU President Karen Lewis acknowledges is coming — the better.

Because $15 million, you see, is just a fraction of the potential price tag for a longer day.

The bill starts with paying teachers more for adding instructional time. While some extra compensation is warranted, we aren’t convinced teachers should get a significant raise.

Public school teachers across Illinois and the nation earn what Chicago teachers make now but already spend far more time in the classroom. And while a big raise would be a morale boost for beleaguered teachers, there’s no money for that. CPS’ gaping deficit this year pales in comparison to what it will face in 2013 when its pension bill will triple — to $672 million. This is not a manufactured crisis, as CTU falsely contends.

And whatever extra money CPS may turn up will be needed to cover the remaining costs for a longer day. Both CPS and CTU are committed to more art, music, science, physical education and recess in a longer day. But all that has a price tag — for more teachers, aides, materials and equipment.

CPS says a longer day wouldn’t necessarily cost much more if it’s part of a major restructuring of the day — CPS wants to redo how kids spend the school day, not just plop 90 minutes on the existing day. Money could be saved by dropping some programs and scaling back what’s offered after school. But we remain unconvinced that those savings will be enough to make up for new costs.

CPS insiders tell us they are at work costing out a longer day. They should share that information with the public at large and with CPS’ newly created “Longer School Day Advisory Committee,” which includes advocates, public officials and a few parents and principals. The group is tasked with determining how to restructure the school day. Cost must be a central part of that discussion.

CTU President Karen Lewis on Tuesday agreed to be on the committee and then pulled out a few hours later, publicly slapping CPS by calling it a “publicity stunt.” She was right to demand more voices on the committee, and CPS already has added more names, but her own publicity stunt undermines trust with CPS’ new administration and does little to advance the conversation on a longer school day.

Instead of setting up “political committees,” Lewis added Thursday, CPS needs to sit down with school staff to come up with a “better plan.”

By all means — great idea. But Lewis also should sit on the committee CPS has set up to fundamentally redefine the school day.

Chicago’s teachers and students would be better off if she were at the table, lending her considerable expertise as a teacher and asking tough questions about how CPS intends to pay for a longer day.

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