School districts across North Carolina are lobbying state lawmakers for the ability to start classes earlier than the late August date now required in state law.
The N.C. House Education Committee backed 17 school calendar flexibility bills on Tuesday that would give districts flexibility on the start and end dates set in the school calendar law. School officials say having more control will help students, because schools will be able to more quickly start next the year and address COVID-19 learning loss.
“The whole point behind this is to try to make our learning a little more effective,” said Rep. Jeff Zenger, a Forsyth County Republican. “We all know and recognize that we have a tremendous amount of ground to pick up.”
But any legislation would have a hard time passing because of the tourism industry’s concerns about the economic impact of shortening summer break. The House has passed calendar flexibility bills in 2017 and 2019, only to see them die in the Senate.
““Everyone is familiar with my attitude about the tourism industry and school calendar,” said Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican. “It’s been shortened to about six weeks now, seven weeks.
“I think it should be labeled child abuse to send anybody back to school before Labor Day.”
School calendar law
The school calendar law was passed by the General Assembly in 2004 at the request of the tourism industry and some parents. These groups were concerned about how the school year was starting earlier and earlier in August, cutting into summer vacation time.
Under current state law, schools can start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. Some schools, such as charter schools, year-round schools and some low-performing schools, are exempt from the law.
A one-year exemption was allowed for the current school year to start Aug. 19 due to COVID-19.
Only one of the bills backed Tuesday, House Bill 376, would affect all of the state’s school districts. It would allow schools to start the Monday closest to Aug. 19.
Flexibility for individual districts
The other 16 bills are “local bills,” covering 30 school districts in 25 counties.
Some bills, such as the ones backed for Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the state’s two largest school districts, would give them complete flexibility on the opening and closing dates. They’re among the districts who’ve complained that starting in late August hurts the ability of high school students to take community college courses and prevents students from taking fall semester final exams before winter break.
“This bill was drafted in conjunction with our superintendent and school board,” said Rep. Erin Paré, a Wake County Republican. “It really just gives the county the flexibility to set the open and close dates so the kids can finish the semester before winter break.”
Other bills would set new specific opening and closing dates.
Louise Lee, the founder of Save Our Summers NC, told the committee that the bills are representing only the concerns of school districts. But Lee said her group is speaking for the parents and teachers who support the calendar law.
“These people have been through enough this year without fighting once again,” Lee said. “Just for what? Just to preserve a somewhat traditional school calendar as a choice for families, a choice.
“We have heard the arguments about community college alignments and exams before Christmas for 17 years. It is time to put these arguments to rest.”