updated 3/12/2009 8:12:42 PM ET 2009-03-13T00:12:42

With U.S. school districts strapped for cash, more are considering a schedule that delights students and makes working parents cringe: Class only four days a week.

By extending school hours and eliminating a day of classes each week, education officials say they could save busloads of money on transportation and utilities.

Introduced by New Mexico during the 1970s oil crisis, the abbreviated school week is gaining fresh momentum in states and districts hurt by the economic downturn. Select districts in about 17 states already follow a four-day week and legislators in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Missouri and Washington have introduced similar proposals.

"It's happening primarily because of the economic situation," said Gale Gaines, vice president for state services at the Southern Regional Education Board. "Schools and districts are trying to work as efficiently as possible."

While there's still debate about how much districts will save, proponents say the shortened week can improve attendance and teacher retention. As for academics, studies have shown the four-day schedule does not hinder student achievement, and may even help improve test scores.

Change involves adding another hour
Some districts have even reported fewer disciplinary referrals and more classroom participation.

"It's hard to get to the why, of course, because so many things affect student achievement," said Andrea D. Beesley of Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning in Denver.

State laws govern how many days students must attend class each year. In places where four-day weeks are allowed, districts are required to hold an equivalent number of instructional hours. That typically means adding just over an hour of class each day.

Critics worry, however, about burdening working parents with extra child care costs, and question whether students — especially younger ones in elementary school — can handle a longer school day without getting tired.

Since the early 1970s, the four-day school week has primarily been adopted by small, rural districts that shuttle students long distances.

Many districts in Colorado already do
The idea has especially taken hold in the Mountain states; in Colorado alone, about 60 districts are on a four-day school week this year. A 2006 Colorado Department of Education report on the four-day week said the initial reason for making the switch has generally been financial.

These days, rural districts aren't the only one considering the switch.

In South Florida, the Broward County school district, just north of Miami, is considering the four-day week for its high schools.

Officials in districts that have four-day school weeks caution that it falls short of being a magic bullet for school budgets. For example, even though a school may be without students, utilities must be kept on because it's still a gathering place for the community and athletic competitions.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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