TAR HEEL VIEW: General Assembly should rework the school calendar

North Carolina’s public school calendar was set for economic and political considerations, not for academic reasons. It’s time to try a more sensible approach.

A bill that passed 104-6 in the state House of Representatives would authorize 20 school systems to begin the academic year more than two weeks earlier in August than they do now, starting in 2018 or 2019. The bill then would direct the State Board of Education and N.C. Department of Commerce to study the academic effects and impact on travel and tourism after three years and report findings to the legislature.

That idea should have been implemented more than a decade ago, before the legislature meddled in school calendar decisions in the first place.

In 2004, the state enacted a law that set the opening and closing dates of the school year at approximately Aug. 26 and June 11, depending on weekend dates. Some flexibility was allowed, primarily for schools that operated on year-round schedules.

This was in response to a trend that saw some school districts starting their school years earlier and earlier. They did it for academic reasons. Beginning earlier allowed them to complete their fall semester before the Christmas holiday. And shortening the summer break was meant to help children retain more of what they’d learned during the year.

But strong opposition emerged. A well-organized and effective parents’ group called Save Our Summers lobbied for a longer break. It was allied with the travel and tourism industry, which was concerned about the loss of family vacation time and the difficulty in hiring high school students for summer work. They prevailed in pushing the legislature to override the authority of local school boards to set the schedules they thought were best to serve the academic interests of their students.

This was disturbing for the reasons that academic considerations should come first, and that locally elected school boards should make such decisions.

A third concern received less attention: Was there enough hard data to determine the relationship between summer breaks and academic achievement and the economic impact on vacation communities? Probably not, and that didn’t matter to the legislature at the time.

House Bill 389, which now awaits action in a Senate committee, seeks to generate the information that was lacking in 2004. Will students return to school with more knowledge if their summer break is shortened to eight weeks instead of 10? And exactly how much economic harm will coastal communities suffer if families have to squeeze their beach vacations into eight weeks instead of 10? How many summer jobs will go unfilled?

With more information in hand, school boards and legislators could make better decisions about setting calendars.

We hope legislators would not insist on a longer summer break if they learn that students take significantly more time to catch up in September, and especially if the economic benefit is slight. The experience might show different results in different communities — more reason to allow local decisions.

The school systems named in this bill aren’t required to participate in the three-year research project. But it sounds like a good idea, especially for schools where students tend to struggle and aren’t well-served by a long summer break.

Children should have time off in the summer, whether for family vacations, church camps, goofing off at home or the pool or, for teens, summer jobs. But they don’t need to regress academically. Finding the right balance is important, and it requires information to determine what that is.

The Senate should join the House in approving a bill that could produce real benefits.

The Greensboro News & Record