School Start Dates Cause Rift Between Educators, Tourism Industry

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At least five state legislatures are debating changing school start dates, and how the academic year coincides with revenue-generating tourism has remained a significant factor.

One of those states is Iowa, writes Kathy A. Bolten, reporting for The Des Moines Register. Currently, local educators make the decision about school start dates, but some states are campaigning to have schools start classes after Labor Day. At this time, there are no studies available to determine whether starting the school year before Labor Day helps or hinders students’ academic achievement.

One study, however, published in Education Next in 2010, that shows that the more days students spend in school before they take standardized or other tests, the better they perform on those tests. The study was based on how the number of snow days  during the school year affected test scores of students in Colorado and Maryland schools. The study is what Iowa educators are using to support their protest of the Iowa Department of Education’s decision to stop giving automatic waivers to districts that want to start the school year earlier than state law allows, which is the week of September 1.

At this time, Iowa is one of 17 states that have restrictions on when the school year should begin. Over 30 years, the waivers for earlier start dates have been allowed. In the last few years, however, start dates have slowly moved earlier into August, and the change is upsetting the tourism industry and some families in the state. A bill allowing schools to start no earlier than August 23 is in Iowa’s House, and in the Senate there is a bill headed to the floor for debate that would allow local educators to decide when their schools would start. Whether the House, which is led by Republicans, the Democratic Senate, and Republican Governor Terry Branstad will be able to come to a consensus is the critical question.

The same questions are being debated in Texas, where argument over the issue has gone on for three decades. The tourism industry in 2001 complained that an early start date for schools played a part in Texas losing $790 million a year in economic benefits, according to Eva-Marie Ayala of The Dallas Morning News. In a 2006 special session, lawmakers came up with a compromise that changed the start date to late August. Since then, school districts have been lobbying, with help from the Texas Association of School Boards and other groups, for local control of school schedule. The tourism industry opposes local control.

Moving the school start date, says Justin Bragiel, the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association’s general counsel, affects family vacation time and local tourism economies. He continued by pointing out that starting early will require districts to spend more on energy costs.

Students’ summer job opportunities will also be affected by earlier start times. Educators are concerned about uneven semesters that make it more difficult for students to do well on state tests and that make it difficult to balance course information for teachers, fewer instructional days, and the timing of final exams.

The issues become even more complicated when it comes to the timing involved with year-round school schedules. Year-round schools start the calendar in early July, and changing it would make the schedule run more like a traditional academic calendar.  The Iowa Senate bill agrees.

Senate Education Policy Vice Chairman, Brian Schoenjahn, says, “In the Senate at this time our bill is basically going to be a very clean and very simple local control bill period. Let the school districts decide.”

The deadline for districts to apply for waivers  is March 15.