Lawmakers hypocritical on school calendar control


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Politicians take positions or votes all the time at variance to what they purport are their core beliefs. But we continue to be confounded by one particular example of hypocrisy.

It’s the simple matter of who should control the annual school calendar: the state or local school boards.

Since 2004, state lawmakers have taken the view they should decide when the school year begins and ends. Under a law they passed, the school year for public K-12 schools can’t start any earlier than the Monday nearest Aug. 26 and can’t end any later than the Friday nearest June 11. During that roughly 9 and a half-month period, school administrators have to squeeze in either 185 school days or 1,025 “instructional” hours.

Given the number of inclement weather events a year alone, it’s easy to see how problematic sticking to that rigid schedule can be. School districts in the west have to cancel multiple days of school because of snow; districts in the east have to cancel numerous days because of flooding from nor’easters or tropical storms. And that’s not counting what happens following catastrophic weather events like last fall’s Hurricane Florence.

Despite the recurring logistical challenges, state lawmakers have held tightly to the notion that the state should continue to have a one-size-fits-all school calendar. Fascinatingly, they’ve done so even following a change of control at the Legislature. Both the House and Senate were ruled by Democrats when the 2004 law was passed; both chambers have been under Republican control since 2010, and the law still stands.

To its credit, the GOP-controlled House passed a bill by 100-8 margin in 2017 to allow any school district to start its school year as early as Aug. 15 to align with the community college calendar. The House passed a separate measure, by a 104-6 margin, to allow 20 primarily high-poverty counties to start the school year as early as the Monday closest to Aug. 10.

Neither measure went anywhere in the GOP-controlled Senate, however. Despite claiming to be champions of local control in education — their battle cry against the Common Core curriculum a few years ago as an infringement on local control of academics comes to mind — a majority of senators believes in big-government solutions when it comes to the school calendar. China’s President Xi Jinping would be proud.

The Senate’s opposition to local calendar control is based almost exclusively on opposition from the state’s travel and tourism industry, which pushed for the later school-start date. The industry continues to demand state control of the school calendar, claiming it ensures rental companies will still have vacationers filling beach and mountain cottages, and restaurants will still have customers, in the latter weeks of August. The later start date also ensures those businesses will continue to have a steady source of cheap labor — high school students — for those final weeks of summer.

Tourism is obviously a major part of North Carolina’s economy, second only to agriculture in impact and responsible for nearly $24 billion in direct visitor spending and more than 225,000 jobs in 2017. But should it dictate when our kids go to school? 

Local school boards rightly don’t think so, particularly when they’re trying to meet other mandates, many of them imposed by the same lawmakers who won’t give them control of the school calendar. Nearly half the school districts across the state, including all of those in our region, are making a new push this year to return control of the school calendar to local school boards. In response to their efforts, more than 20 bills have been filed granting “calendar flexibility” to 51 of the state’s 115 school districts. One of the bills was filed by state Rep. Howard Hunter, D-Hertford, who wants to give control of the calendar to school districts in Pasquotank and several other counties.

Local school officials make a compelling case for calendar flexibility. They note that under the rigid calendar now in effect, students are out of school for too long in the summer. This long gap creates what’s known as “learning loss,” as students show up in the fall unable to remember what they learned the previous year. 

The current calendar law creates even more obstacles to student success because it requires middle and high school students to take end-of-semester exams after, not before, their winter break. That means students are taking tests — tests on which their school’s legislatively-mandated letter grade depends — after they’ve been out of the classroom for several weeks. Local educators say this gap helps drive down test scores. Lawmakers imposed the letter grade system a few years ago, claiming it would provide a better idea of student performance. Although they claim they want to see test scores improve, their opposition to changing the school calendar law suggests otherwise.

Refusing to change the school calendar law also undercuts any argument lawmakers make about the need to encourage more young people to pursue college courses or job-ready skills while still in high school. Under the current calendar that prohibits the start of the school year before essentially the last week of August, school districts can’t align their calendars with those of community colleges. As a result, most students who could be taking college-level courses or learning a job skill while still in high school can’t.

Our lawmakers claim constantly they support doing whatever it takes to ensure the students in our K-12 school system succeed so that they can become productive citizens. Just don’t ask them to do anything that might cause those students to leave their minimum-wage summer job early.