Let schools start before Labor Day
John Malone, Commentary, Star Tribune, April 1, 2012 –
Students can benefit, and it’s right to give the choice to local decisionmakers.
Current Minnesota law forbids school districts from starting school before Labor Day. A reform measure, authored by state Rep. Connie Doepke and state Sen. David Hann, would allow school districts to begin the school year prior to Labor Day. It’s time for Minnesota to join the other 47 states that allow a pre-Labor Day start.
State Fair and resort industry lobbies have always succeeded in diverting this long-sought reform to committees where the bill dies a silent death.
Most Minnesotans would agree both the State Fair and the tourist industry are important to our state, which is why the reform proposal includes a requirement that the Thursday and Friday before Labor Day can’t be scheduled as school days.
For a family with school-age children, a vacation in early or mid-June is far more feasible than one in the last week of August. By that time, our high school students are immersed in sports, band, orientations and numerous other school activities — except classroom learning, which is forbidden by state mandate. That doesn’t make sense.
Minnesota schools are held accountable for how students perform on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments and on national Advanced Placement tests that our high school students are taking in ever-increasing numbers. These tests are administered in the spring, and currently our students have less pretest instructional time than students in the other 47 states. Dave Marcotte, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, studied Minnesota’s third-grade state math test scores from 2002 through 2005, concluding, “There was substantial year-to-year variation in the number of instructional days students had prior to the test date.” When there was an increase in test scores, Marcotte attributed a large portion of it to expansion of instructional time prior to the test.
The vast majority of higher-education institutions begin the school year before Labor Day, and aligning K-12 school calendars with higher education will enhance opportunities for our high school students to take advantage of the exciting postsecondary options now available. Starting the school year prior to Labor Day also would allow schools to begin the new semester following winter break, which provides a more logical transition for students and staff.
No school district would be required to start before Labor Day. In a 2008 survey conducted by the Minnesota School Boards Association, 72 percent of the school districts stated that if given the choice, they would opt for a pre-Labor Day start. Twenty-eight percent would opt for a post-Labor Day start, and 100 percent of these districts would be making a choice based on what was in the best interests of their students.
A frequent claim of reform opponents is there are plenty of days between Labor Day and early to mid-June to get the required number of school days in. Our school board and teachers just approved a school calendar for 2013-2014, and it will be similar to other districts around the state: days off around Thanksgiving, winter and spring breaks, and staff development and workshops on six days over a span of nine months. An additional week of staff development and training are in place for the week prior to the start of the school year, and for several days in June. Idle days are nonexistent, unless every Minnesota school kids’ fervent prayer for an occasional snow day is answered.
At a recent House hearing on this reform, a lobbyist for the Minnesota resort industry actually testified that we can’t duplicate the mistake made in Iowa, where all school districts are allowed to seek a waiver from the Labor Day start mandate, because “all the districts then sought the waiver.” I think we have a lot to learn from Iowa. No school district there has ever been denied a waiver, because the state recognizes the issue is a matter of local control. At the same hearing, a lobbyist for the State Fair testified “we just want to keep things the way they have always been” — ironically this testimony was given to the House Education Reform Committee. The time for reform in the interest of student achievement and local control is now. Let the learning begin — in August.
John Malone is the chair of the Orono school board.