Five Minnesota school districts were given one-year approval to operate four-day school weeks, the Minnesota Department of Education said this week. 

The decisions come as state legislators consider eliminating the requirement that the so-called flexible learning year programs be approved by the education commissioner. Recently-approved legislation in both the Senate and House would give school boards the authority to set alternative school calendars. 

"Because of the uncertainty of the outcome of proposed legislation related to flexible learning year programs currently at the Minnesota Legislature, I have approved the request for the 2015-16 school year only," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius wrote to one of the school districts.

The five school districts are: Blackduck, Lake Superior, MACCRAY, Ogilvie, and Pelican Rapids. 

Officials from these rural school districts have lobbied to keep their four-day school weeks, despite objections by state education officials, including Cassellius who said in a recent letter to House Education Finance Chair Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie that "there is insufficient evidence that four day school weeks benefit our students." 

In the MACCRAY school district, as the Maynard-Clara City-Raymond school district in west-central Minnesota is known, the community has embraced the schedule, first borne out of financial necessity. 

The four-day schedule that runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. has proved popular with students, parents, teachers and even local businesses, who hire teens to work on their off day. School district officials say they have saved thousands of dollars on busing, heating and other administrative costs.

Though unusual, flexible scheduling has existed in many states for decades, and is popular primarily in rural districts trying to pinch pennies.

It gained popularity during the 1970s energy crisis in the U.S., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Twenty-one states have laws allowing four-day school weeks, according to NCSL data.

Roughly 120 school districts have structured their academic years this way, though districts in a half-dozen states have not opted to switch to the shorter schedule.

The NCSL, a research tool for state legislative bodies, said the lack of comprehensive studies makes it difficult to say whether the shorter school weeks hurt or help student achievement. 

File photo: MACCRAY students last December headed to their buses at 4 p.m., when their school day concludes as part of the four-day weekly schedule in place since 2008. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune)