For all the talk of Furlough Fridays and how much restoring those school days may cost the Hawaii Department of Education, it’s more difficult to place a price on what continuing them will mean to students.

“When I was working in Singapore a few years ago, the people there said to me the last thing they would cut during an economic downturn is education,” said David Grossman, interim dean of the Educational Division at Chaminade University.

Not so for Hawaii.

Most public school students in Hawaii have already lost 14 days of classroom instruction in 2009-2010, making theirs the shortest school year in the United States.

The students still stand to lose three more days, shortening their school year by more than three full weeks, to less than 33 weeks. The average public school year in the U.S. is 36 weeks, which is already shorter than at heavyweight private schools like Iolani School, with a 38-week year. Punahou School, however, has a 34-week school year and its students manage to get competitive scores, college scholarships and college placements.

The length of the school year may not be the most accurate indicator of a quality education, Grossman said, but it can help evaluate what kind of priority communities place on their students and their futures.

Some school districts are shortening their weeks but lengthening their days, said Mike Griffith, senior school finance analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. Each step to save money — shortening the year, the week or the day — has a cost to the community.

The education board had allotted another 17 furlough Fridays to be spread throughout the 2010-2011 school year. However it appears that new funding and concessions from teachers may mean no furlough days next year. If not, and Hawaii goes another year with furloughs, by summer of 2011, students in Hawaii would have received seven fewer weeks of instruction than their peers in other states received on average.

And if the board continued implementing furloughs at the same rate it is now, Hawaii’s high school freshmen of 2009 would graduate in 2013 having received 14 fewer weeks of instruction than the average for public school students nationwide, and 22 fewer weeks than their Iolani counterparts. This would leave Hawaii students nearly half a school year back of the pack they’re competing against for college admission and jobs.

Grossman said about the Japanese: “They realized that children — that’s their future. Your chief investment is in what we call human capital, which are our students and our future.”

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