By Ben Velderman

BOSTON – Beginning next fall, 40 schools in five states can begin using federal money originally intended for tutoring or after school programs to extend their school year by 300 hours.

The chosen states include Colorado, Tennessee, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The announcement was made earlier this week and was cheered by advocates for expanded learning time as a way to close the achievement gap between white students and their black and Latino peers, reports

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the decision to give disadvantaged students more learning time as “one of the most important things we can do.”

On the surface, the federal government’s decision seems like big win for traditional public schools and their union employees. To work longer days, the unions would almost certainly demand more pay for teachers.

But Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh thinks charter schools might be the ultimate winners from this emphasis on extended learning time. Or at least they should be.

If the way to help underprivileged students is by giving them more time in the classroom, Lehigh writes, then the best solution would be to increase the number of charter schools.

The average school day at Boston-area charters is two hours longer than the school day offered at Boston Public Schools.

“We now know that more learning time is often important to boosting the educational performance of urban kids from low-income families,” he writes. “The looming question for policymakers, then, is this: When it comes to bang for the buck, what’s the best way to expand the benefits of more learning time to the maximum number of those students?

“It’s not by paying individual traditional schools more for longer days and years. Around (Massachusetts), charter schools are already providing that longer day, and for the same basic per-pupil amount that, in the traditional public schools, buys only a shorter day.

“To put the matter bluntly, in a time of scarce public dollars, it simply doesn’t make sense for strapped urban districts to pay traditional school teachers more for a longer day when charter schools can and will deliver more learning time for less.”

Lehigh notes that education reformers are planning to push to lift the cap on charter schools during the upcoming legislative session. The teacher unions will undoubtedly fight against the increased competition from charters, but that shouldn’t stop policymakers from seeking the most cost-effective way to lengthen the school day and help students.

If traditional public schools meet the needs of parents and students, then the teacher unions have nothing to fear from the competition.

Regardless, “students and families would benefit from the expanded options and competition. And it’s their interests that policymakers must put first,” Lehigh concludes.

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