- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Maryland officials, contemplating millions of dollars lost each year in vacation tourism revenue, are joining other states in reconsidering school start dates that have crept earlier into the summer in recent years.

Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot has called for a post-Labor Day start to classes, saying his studies show an extra week of summer vacation could generate $74.3 million from tourism and put an additional $7.7 million in state coffers.

“The tourist industries in the state are quite diverse, and there would be increased economic activity that would be pulled back into the school system,” said Mr. Franchot, a Democrat. “The study we did showed a direct increase in economic activity when vacations were being taken after August, and our report did not even include the indirect economic benefits.”

The conclusion comes after a decades-long creep away from the traditional agrarian calendar in which academicians considered the benefits of year-round schooling. Now debates similar to that in Maryland are playing out around the country, with legislatures caught between the economic interests of their states and the educational needs of their students.

In Maryland, a task force was assembled last year to study the implications of a post-Labor Day starting date for public schools. The task force voted 11-4 in favor of a later starting date and recommended to Gov. Martin O’Malley that the state implement a law that will mandate the later start.

Mr. Franchot’s report looked at three of Maryland’s major tourist destinations — Ocean City, Baltimore and Deep Creek Lake — and concluded that each would increase substantially in economic profit. The comptroller also says that an extended break will give students more time to spend with their families and prevent businesses from losing their temporary workers — often high school students — before the summer ends.

“I believe that it would improve the quality of life of parents and families with young children, and I think it’s a mistake, a well-intentioned one, to start school earlier because kids benefit from having a full summer,” Mr. Franchot said.

Passing such a law would make Maryland one of just a few states to require a later start. Many states give their districts flexible options in when to start and finish, contingent upon meeting a 180-day requirement.

The Worcester County Board of Education recently decided to push back its start date to Sept. 2 for the 2014-2015 year despite its superintendent’s objections. Mr. Franchot sees Worcester’s decision as emblematic of where the state is headed.

The tourism industry has been one of the driving forces behind September starting dates in places like Michigan and Virginia, where the law requires schools to start after Labor Day unless they obtain a waiver from the state. The laws are lobbied for and championed by tourism officials and business owners who benefit from August earnings.

In Virginia, legislation is introduced virtually every year to reconsider what is called the “King’s Dominion law,” named for the state’s popular theme park. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, supports the later start to school, citing the impact tourism has on the economy.

More schools in Michigan, however, have been requesting waivers to start in mid-August, with some teachers advocating the year-round schedule.

Other states, like Pennsylvania, have most of their schools starting before Labor Day with very few exceptions. In nearly every post-Labor Day dispute, the discussion remains fixed on the economic gains instead of student learning.

Before the Maryland task force came to a vote, local superintendents sent letters to the state Department of Education expressing strong opposition against any legislation that would threaten their district’s autonomy. The letters stated the importance of each district exercising its own judgment according to its diverse needs and the interest of its students.

Mary Jo Richmond, a Frederick County educator and a member of the Maryland State Education Association who sat on the task force, said starting after Labor Day will harm professional development for teachers and students. Ms. Richmond, one of the four members who voted against the recommendation, sees the value in more money for the state but isn’t convinced that it will be good for schools.

“We just have to look at ways to make sure there is really economic benefit and make sure that schools are on the receiving economic end,” Ms. Richmond said. “There’s no report that says that schools will benefit.”

Research isn’t clear about whether a post-Labor Day start affects students academically. Dave Marcotte, a professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, said summer learning loss and inadequate preparation for standardized testing are major factors.

“With the state testing schedule, schools that start early have an advantage,” Mr. Marcotte said. “In the state of Wisconsin, schools started moving their start dates up in order to do better on standardized tests. The state had to restrict the early start dates because the schools were creeping up into early August.”

While summer learning loss has had little impact on students from middle- and upper-income families, Mr. Marcotte said lower-income children suffer the most from long gaps between school years. If the summer is longer than 10 weeks, wealthier children from families with higher educated parents are rarely affected, Mr. Marcotte said, but lower income students tend to lose the educational gains made during the year.

But Tina Bruno, executive director of the Coalition for a Traditional School Year, which lobbies for later start dates, said starting later in the year curbs high cooling costs that are often most expensive in August.

“The money that is spent simply on cooling costs could fund summer programs,” Ms. Bruno said.

“August is one of the hottest months of the year. When Texas schools decided to start later in the year they saved millions of dollars [in utility costs]. That’s funding summer reading packets and other resources for students.”

Whether the task force’s recommendation will result in new legislation being passed is yet to be determined. The bill would need to pass the state legislature and be signed into law by the governor.

Mr. Franchot said he respects the arguments for district autonomy, but thinks the benefits far outweigh the costs.

“Local control is important to me, but I think the state should put its foot down and say, ‘Let summer be summer,’ ” he said.

• Crystal Hill can be reached at chill@washingtontimes.com.

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