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Originally published Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 3:07 PM

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Indiana schools chief wants full 180 days of class; all snow days to be made up next year

Starting next school year, kids may want to think twice about celebrating snow days.

Associated Press Writer

INDIANAPOLIS —

Starting next school year, kids may want to think twice about celebrating snow days.

State schools chief Tony Bennett said Tuesday that he will require schools to make up a day of school for each day they miss because of weather, ending a Department of Education practice that allowed exceptions.

Bennett also said half days and parent-teacher conference days will no longer count toward instructional time. However, days when school is delayed two hours because of weather would count as full instructional days.

The goal is to provide students with 180 full school days, Bennett said.

"Our intent is to help students be prepared for a 21st century economy," he told reporters in his office Tuesday.

Critics say the changes would disrupt calendars, frustrate students and cause headaches for parents. School districts could opt to make up classes on Saturdays or extend the school year if they needed to make up many days.

Current Department of Education policy allows school districts to apply for a waiver to avoid the financial penalty for canceled instructional days. Schools must currently make up one day for each of the first five days missed, then make up one day for every three days missed after that. Bennett approved that policy for this school year because he said he did not want to disrupt the practice during the middle of the school year.

So far this school year, 12 school districts filed waivers with the Department of Education — including Greater Clark County Schools, which Bennett led before being elected state superintendent of public instruction last year.

Bennett said he applied for a waiver as superintendent after the remnants of Hurricane Ike swept through the area in the fall, leaving many without power and turning some schools into makeshift shelters.

But he said he would deny such a waiver if a school district had a similar situation next year.

"I wear a different hat today," Bennett said. "Is it an issue where I'm contradicting myself? You can call it that if you want, but I did have an obligation at that point in time to look at the needs that were presented to me."

The state's largest teachers union said the new policies tied the hands of school districts, despite Bennett's campaign pledges to free schools of burdensome state regulations.

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"That's always a concern, particularly from a superintendent who has led us to believe that he's going to unhandcuff schools," said Mark Shoup, a spokesman for the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Bennett said he is encouraging schools to be creative and flexible in how they make up canceled days, but said he won't budge on the 180 day requirement.

"I think we have a financial obligation to ensure that taxpayers get what we are paying for," Bennett said. "But most importantly...we have an obligation to make sure our kids are prepared."

Some worry that the policies will mean schools won't be able to schedule the two days worth of professional development required under state law.

Many districts now use half days to fit in professional development, but that will no longer be an option under the new policy, said John Ellis, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. Teacher contracts stipulate the number of work days, so it's not as easy as simply tacking on professional development outside of school time, he said.

"What we're faced with now is we still have the mandate for two full days of professional development and no time to do them, and no money to pay for them to be added on after the 180 days," Ellis said.

Critics worry that the changes could reduce time for parent-teacher conferences, which Shoup said are critical for getting parents involved with their children's education.

Some schools have already planned their school calendar for next year, Shoup said.

"They're going to be really scrambling," Shoup said.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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