DES MOINES -- The move last week by state lawmakers to require that all school districts start classes no earlier than the last week of August may be only a prelude to a potentially more divisive debate next session on the length of the school year.
Gov. Terry Branstad's education reform effort creates a task force to study the structure of Iowa's academic year, and that provision has made it through both the House and Senate versions of the bill.
Proponents of lengthening the school year -- including President Barack Obama, who called for it in 2009 -- say the additional seat time will help American students compete in the global economy. They draw a correlation between the longer school years in countries such as Singapore and how well those students do on international tests.
"The governor has heard over and over again at town hall meetings from Iowans who have requested a longer school year," Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht wrote in an email. "The governor believes it is an idea that merits exploring."
Branstad also supported doing away with the waivers that allowed school districts to pick their own start time. His support helped spark the legislation in the House, and it now waits for action in the Senate.
"It is possible to say school districts cannot start until after Labor Day and still have a longer school year. The two are not mutually exclusive," Albrecht said. "Even school districts and countries with longer school years have a summer break, it is just a question of when that break occurs."
Iowa, like a majority of states, requires a minimum of 180 days of school per year. Iowa also requires 5.5 hours of instructional time a day or 27.5 per week.
"Most countries that do well have a 200-day school year, that's what we should be talking about," Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, a former teacher, told her colleagues as she argued against the mandatory start-date legislation last week.
But Kathy Christie, a vice president with the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States, said the research on a longer school year is still "kind of gray."
"If you're doing the same old thing, just for a longer time, it's probably not too helpful," Christie said.
And the recent economic recession has taken some of the momentum away from a longer school year in many states.
In 2009, California enacted legislation that allows districts or charters to shorten the instructional year by up to five school days. Arizona lawmakers cut out classroom hours for students in 7th and 8th grade. And Nevada passed a law in 2011 allowing districts to cut up five non-instructional days from their calendars, essentially taking time from teacher prep days.
"Extending the school calendar is expensive, very expensive," Christie said. "A single school day is very labor-intensive, so when it comes time to cost out a longer calendar, that's when the cold feet start."
Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, a former high school teacher who now works as a community college administrator, said focusing on days is the wrong thing to do.
He first wants to see the state change the definition used on the academic calendar from days to hours, which was a measure House Republicans passed last year but was never taken up in the Senate.
He said that would give school districts greater flexibility on how to manage their time.
"I am concerned about the ‘butt time' we have," he said. "If you define it as hours instead of days, you don't have students taking off on a full Friday for teacher in-service days. You can structure it so the teachers come in for certain hours, and it doesn't affect learning."
Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, who heads the Senate education appropriations subcommittee, said the discussion over days and hours is in itself becoming antiquated.
"What we want to do is get away from when the calendar dictates what the student learns and get into where the individual student dictates what his or her calendar is," he said.
He envisions a school system in which student mastery of a certain set of material means the student moves onto the next content area.
"With online education and the advantages of technology, there's no reason we can't be doing this," Schoenjahn said. "Education reform is going to cost money, but the technology will help us contain those costs, so there might be an offset."
Nadene Davidson is a professor in the University of Northern Iowa's College of Education and the co-director of the Iowa Math and Science Coalition. She said time well spent is more important than time spent, but the argument misses the point.
"Do I think there exists a magic set of numbers? I don't know," she said.
Like Schoenjahn, she sees an education system in which time matters less and demonstrated mastery matters more.
"I do think down the road that students are going to learn differently," she said. "I'm not so sure the hardcore grade breakdown is what we're going to be using."
She said it will take time to move the educational system in that direction but it eventually will come.
"It's too big a leap for us right now," she said. "But we're moving in that direction."