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The influence of a single industry seems to be swaying policy makers to introduce changes in the school calendar at a time when national leaders are calling for more and better time for learning.

If you wonder how well and how much states heed messages from Washington, you need look no farther than the nearby state of Maryland for an example.

In a move that was both surprising and brash, Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order in August that requires public schools in the state to start classes after Labor Day and wrap up by June 15, effective for the 2017-18 school year. Hogan’s decision effectively limits schools to 180 days of instruction with little wiggle room.

The governor claimed his decision is good for families and the state’s economy. The later start date is supposed to give stressed-out families more “quality time” together over summer (refrain from smirking, please). The state’s economy would benefit because amusement parks and state beach resorts could continue operating through the end of August and the holiday weekend. This is the same argument that’s been used to justify post-Labor Day starts in Michigan and Minnesota. Lawmakers in Rhode Island, Ohio, and Delaware also have introduced similar bills.

Starting school after Labor Day is more common in the Midwest but not unheard of in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region: Virginia has started school after Labor Day for two decades. The King’s Dominion Law, as it has come to be known, has remained in place thanks to strong and effective lobbying by amusement park owners and others within the tourism industry (despite concerns from those in the education industry). Finally, after several years of trying, Virginia’s largest school system, Fairfax County Public Schools, received a waiver from the law and will start school before Labor Day in 2017. The District of Columbia also starts school before Labor Day and has no plans to change its calendar.

Mixed reaction

In Maryland, the reaction to this gubernatorial order has been mixed. Although some support the decision, many more have called foul, saying the governor’s office has clearly overstepped its bounds. Maryland educators are among those who are adamantly against the change. High-profile superintendents and school board members in some of the largest school districts and even national leaders that serve on the Maryland State Board of Education have all publicly spoken out against the decision.

Understanding why so many educators oppose the calendar change is tricky but really important. Because state law still requires schools to have 180 instructional days a year, a later start seems like it would mean simply shifting time, not eliminating it. However, this change means schools have only 180 days to work with. School calendars — which are already overloaded with an increasing number of holidays, snow days, testing days, and teacher professional development days —  will have more difficulty finding time to accommodate the instructional needs of students.

This is especially problematic for large school districts that serve low-income and at-risk student populations. In an era when many school districts are adding instructional time or days as a strategy for boosting student achievement, educators in urban or low-income communities have a hard time seeing the value of capping the amount of days kids need to be in school.

While Gov. Hogan and other state leaders who support this change are adamant about the decision being made in service to both economic and social well-being, I take issue with their analysis. State comptroller Peter Franchot said the change will “generate new state revenues that can be reinvested in our classrooms and for other vital priorities. It will spare tens of thousands of teachers, students, and school employees from having to return to sweltering, unhealthy classrooms in the hottest days of August. And finally, it will give families throughout our state time to enjoy those final days of summer the way they were meant to be enjoyed, whether it is taking that final vacation to the beach or the lake, visiting the Inner Harbor or catching an Orioles game.”

I disagree with this argument for many reasons, some personal and some professional. I’ve lived in the DC/Maryland area for 30 years, and I can assure you that any classroom that is sweltering at the end of August will remain sweltering through most of September. The timer on sweltering does not automatically go off after Labor Day in the mid-Atlantic. Trust me, you are still sweating when the leaves start to turn.

Next, I don’t know about other parents, but by mid-August I am literally praying for the start of school. I don’t want to spend one more second “relaxing” with my children at the beach, the lake, or anywhere else on earth. I want to go to work on a normal schedule and with the peace of mind that comes with knowing my children are in school thinking and learning and engaging in something more worthwhile than annoying me.

Professionally, I am bothered that the so-called cost-benefit analysis around this decision seems to ignore some important details. For example, just how is your average family supposed to afford another week at the beach, lake, baseball stadium, or amusement park? Are we going to assume that all parents can take additional time off from their job and pay for another week or two of vacation? Seems to me the leaders in Maryland didn’t factor the per-family costs associated with this change into their economic analysis.

While starting school after Labor Day may put more resources into the state coffers (that is a predictive assumption by the way), it won’t help the many families who simply can’t afford to have their children out of school for an additional week or two. Maryland’s state leaders may wax poetic about kids now having more time to relax at a lake or the beach, but for many low-income families, that scenario is wishful thinking. First, they don’t have the resources to “enjoy” more time off in summer. Second, research shows that too much time off from school actually has a negative effect on educational gains.

This is the exact concern that educators in Maryland and other states have echoed. Starting school later has the potential to adversely affect all students but especially students who are at risk of low achievement, truancy, and dropping out. According to the Summer Learning Association, students lose two months of math skills during summer if they are not engaging in academically enriching activities. This loss is compounded for low-income students who lose over two months of reading achievement during summer. Reading proficiency is one of the most reliable indicators of academic success, and 3rd-grade reading proficiency predicts long-term academic outcomes, including graduation (Hernandez, 2011). If our most vulnerable students are losing over two months of reading skills during summer vacation, then what is the effect of that on the state’s economic well-being? Shouldn’t that be factored into the analysis about how this change will affect the state?

Income inequality also will influence how families manage a later start date for school. For wealthy families, the later start is likely a net positive or a nonissue. These families have the ability to provide their kids with additional care and/or educational activities that will engage them and keep them out of harm’s way.

For many families however, the options are far more limited. Because most publicly funded summer activities for kids end by late August, families that can’t afford the private child care or activities will have to find a way to manage the time. That may mean kids have to go to work with their parents or simply hang out alone at home. For some, any loss of school days means going without a free or reduced-price school lunch or school-sponsored breakfast. Those who push for an extra week or two of summer seem to have overlooked the fact that enjoying the dog days of summer is hard when you’re scrambling to ensure your kids are being cared for, fed, and safe.

Whose local control?

In the case of Maryland, perhaps the most egregious aspect of the governor’s order is that by forcing schools to comply it represents a challenge to the nation’s system of locally controlled public schools. Why should any governor’s office be allowed to make a unilateral decision for all school districts when so many teachers and education leaders stand in opposition? Is the potential for economic gain so great that the concerns of a majority of educators should simply be ignored?

Making the school calendar a pawn of the tourism industry seems to me like a very bad precedent in any state. It is shortsighted to think that providing a particular industry with an economic boost is somehow more important than giving all students a much-needed academic boost. State leaders should have mutually supportive education and economic policies and stop pitting local businesses against local schools. Do they really need to be reminded that the key to a robust economy is a well-educated workforce? Apparently so.

Reference

Hernandez, D.J. (2011) Double jeopardy: How 3rd-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

MARIA FERGUSON (mferguson@gwu.edu) is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Originally published in December 2016/January 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (4), 74-75. © 2016 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.