As a Georgia PTA representative told a Senate study committee Tuesday, a surefire way to rile parents is to tinker with the school calendar.
Especially when the motivating factor appears to be boosting the tourism industry rather than schools.
In its first meeting, the Senate study committee on school starting dates offered several reasons why the current trend to early August start dates should be reconsidered. None seemed particularly compelling.
For example, several senators insisted kids can’t get summer jobs when schools let out in late May and return in early August. Why?
Many summer counselor jobs are available to teens as camps follow the school schedules. In metro Atlanta, most day camps begin the last week of May and go through the last week of July. Plenty of summer attractions hire teens.
During the two-hour meeting, there was a lack of clarity on a key issue: Is the intent of this Senate panel, heavily loaded with pro-tourism lawmakers and industry representatives, to push back the opening of school two to four weeks or to lengthen the summer break? State Rep. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, chair of the study committee, opened the hearing with the statement that his goal was to “see if we can restore our summer breaks.”
Gooch was among lawmakers waxing nostalgic for the longer summers of his youth, when schools released for 11 or 12 weeks. But if schools keep their current nine-week summer break, a late August or post-Labor Day start date would require children remain in school through June. As much longing as there may be for August beach trips, so will there be yearnings for June getaways if that month gets partially erased from the summer break calendar.
If the goal is to push back the early August start but keep the late May ending, then Georgia districts will have to eliminate some breaks during the school year to satisfy the state requirement for 180-days.
Despite my own challenges as a working parent over the years with weeklong breaks in October and February, many parents love them. My district also had a week at Thanksgiving, two at Christmas and the traditional April spring break. Those six weeks off required schedule juggling and imposing on grandparents.
Teachers generally endorse weeklong breaks. When my district adopted its balanced calendar, the chief rationale was not that it improved academic performance of students, but that it enhanced teacher recruitment and retention.
“Having those breaks improves teacher attendance, improves teacher retention, teacher stress and overall morale,” said Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators. “Teachers are not leaving for money. It is the stress. It is the constant demands. Those breaks are important. They are a time to de-stress.”
I am not sure there is much of a parental groundswell for either goal – shifting the start of school or expanding the summer. As Georgia PTA legislative chair Diane Jacobi cautioned the study committee, “I can tell you from experience there is no one calendar that will please everybody in every community. The PTA doesn’t have a position on a specific start date. We do believe in local control.”
A Professional Association of Georgia Educators poll on this question drew 18,000 responses, 83 percent of which endorse leaving school calendar to local districts to determine, said PAGE attorney Matthew Pence.
The state Department of Education said it, too, believes local districts are best equipped to know the needs and wishes of their constituents and communities.
In its comments, the Senate panel revealed the old adage under the Gold Dome that “all legislators support local control – until they don’t.”
Referencing the negative feedback to the study committee, Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, said, “The first reaction of the education community is ‘Don’t tell us what to do.’ I don’t know if local control is the answer in every single issue.”
After the state DOE shared that many districts create calendar committees and seek feedback from parents before setting their start dates, Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, countered, “Let’s say a local school board gathered all that feedback. At end of the day, it’s up to the school board. With a five-person board, that can be three people.”
But those elected school board members live in the community and were elected in their neighborhoods to oversee school policy. Are state legislators in a better position to set policy for all schools from Atlanta?
And should a committe on the question be full of tourism and business interests? See my earlier blog on the makeup of the committee. The resolution creating the committee cites the importance of tourism and says early and scattered school starting dates hurt the industry’s ability to hire student workers and attract vacationing families.
Earlier starting times in Georgia have been attributed to a desire to complete all end-of-the-semester testing before children depart for the Christmas break. In other states, students break for the holidays to come back two weeks later to exams. Georgia educators have been concerned kids will have a harder time with the tests if taken after the Christmas break.
“I am not sure all the students forget everything they learn in two weeks,” said Wilkinson. However, Jacobi of the Georgia PTA said now students, especially at the high school level, don’t have to worry about tests and projects during their winter break and can spend time with family.
There was also discussion of the cost of air conditioning schools and school buses. Wilkinson said one school district pushed the start of school back two weeks in August and saved $300,000 in building air conditioning costs. If the district started after Labor Day, it could save a half million, he said.
Other committee members said kids were at risk in unairconditioned school buses in August, especially in rural areas where students rode for an hour or more. Georgia Association of Educators President Charlotte Booker offered an immediate solution to the school bus problem: Air condition the buses.
After the meeting, I looked at the weather for August. It was hotter in mid-August this year than in the first week, so the contention schools would save on air conditioning by starting two weeks later is not assured. In fact, it was hotter several days this month than it was in early August.
If the committee wants to start school in cooler climes, it may have to push the start date back to October. And that may not work as we saw several 90 and above days this month, too.