When it comes to the number of hours students spend in the classroom, Oregon is already near the bottom of the barrel. It's especially bad in the Portland Public Schools, where fewer than 20 percent of high-school students—and only 7 percent of seniors—spend a full day in classes.

That's according to a complaint being filed with the Oregon Department of Education by exasperated parents who say Portland Public Schools' high-school schedule breaks state law.

Last year, the Portland Parents Coalition warned the district it was out of compliance by offering so little instructional time for their kids.

The coalition says the district prevents most students from taking a full course load, filling their days instead with mandatory study halls and chunks of empty time.

The result: Portland students fall more than 100 hours short of the state-mandated minimum 990 instructional hours per year.

After what it calls broken promises by district officials, coalition members say they will file a formal complaint with the Oregon Department of Education. 

The complaint alleges that Portland Public Schools’  failure to provide the required number of instructional and classroom hours is a “de facto shortening of the school year” and jeopardizes students’ educational opportunities.

"PPS's policy and practice have created a culture in our high schools where a full class day or year of meaningful education is neither the norm nor the expectation," says coalition member Caroline Fenn. "This is the superintendent's responsibility. We need the state's help to hold the [school] board and the superintendent's feet to the fire."

The coalition—which includes former School Board member Julia Brim Edwards—grew out of parent dissatisfaction with the district after it cut high-school teachers and switched to an eight-period block schedule in 2011.

Portland Public Schools limited most students to seven class periods spread over two days—the equivalent of losing 22 school days, according to the complaint.

A December 2012 district report says fewer than half of high-school students now attend school for a full day—a sharp decline from 2010-11, the year before the district changed the schedule.

Superintendent Carole Smith announced the district's proposed 2013-14 budget last spring, with more cuts to high-school instructional hours.

The coalition's members threatened to file a complaint with the state at the time but pulled back after Smith revised the district's budget to restore 58 high-school teaching positions and allow students to take up to eight periods of classes a day.

Smith said then the district could not afford to staff schools for all eight periods.

"If we had more resources, then we could hire more teachers and offer more classes to kids," district spokesman Robb Cowie said at the time.

Fenn says the district has not followed through in good faith.

The final straw, coalition members say, came in October when the district announced it had found an extra $11 million in the budget.

"Either their budgeting system is broken or they are playing a shell game with numbers," Fenn says.

PPS officials say they have not seen the complaint and can't comment on it.

"It's our goal to increase instructional time for all students," says district spokeswoman Christine Miles. "Our latest contract proposal increases instructional time by three days."

The Oregon Department of Education had not received the complaint by WW's press time.

Fenn says the coalition hopes the state will use its bully pulpit and perhaps its control of access to state education funding to require Portland Public Schools to provide at least the state's minimum number of instructional hours.

“They could take the position of advocating for kids,” Fenn adds, “and say this is not OK.”