Labor Day madness

Are schools about training a 21st century workforce or accommodating Ocean City?

Gov. Larry Hogan is scheduled to make an announcement Wednesday in Ocean City where it is rumored he will reveal an executive order requiring that all Maryland public school systems begin the school year after Labor Day. Neither he nor his partner in this particular crime, Comptroller Peter Franchot, will say, but Ocean City officials are convinced that's what it's about. We certainly hope they're wrong because such a move would represent not only a new low in the governor's bromance with Mr. Franchot, who has been pushing such a mandate for years, but the shocking abandonment of a fundamental — and customarily Republican-espoused — principle of leaving such decisions up to local school boards.

Why interfere with the choice of educators, school administrators, teachers, PTAs, local residents and others who currently have a voice in setting their local school calendars to meet local needs and concerns? Chiefly for the most short-sighted reason imagineable — to convenience tourist-related business owners, particularly those in Ocean City, who have long complained about the manner in which earlier school starts cause the summer vacation season to peter out by mid-August (and for many to lose their teen summer employees earlier than they'd like).

Make no mistake, August school openings are not always popular with students or parents. But critics usually fail to acknowledge the reasons why the school calendar has steadily crept backward in time — the expanding numbers of days off for such events as religious holidays, professional training, snow emergencies and the like. For academically rigorous Advanced Placement courses, where college credits worth thousands of dollars to families are at stake, teachers already must scramble to get a sufficient number of instructional days in before facing a deadline set in proverbial stone, the nationwide AP tests in May.

Even in Baltimore City and Baltimore County where schools lacking air conditioning have become a hot issue — and attracted the ire of the same dynamic duo of educational edict — school boards have not embraced a later start. They are simply loath to compromise both the quality and quantity of instruction at a time when businesses located beyond the reach of the Ocean City Boardwalk are crying out for a more knowledgeable workforce. Within Maryland, only the school board in Worcester County, home of Ocean City, has voluntarily chosen not to open all its schools until after Labor Day.

Public education is a serious business, and there are far greater stakes involved than whether Thrasher's can sell a few more fries. If Maryland's elected leaders pursued only one goal, it ought to be this: Nurturing the nation's best public schools and raising academic standards for all no matter their race, religion, ethnicity or income level, a policy that would do more to eliminate poverty, attract new business and employment opportunities and lower the crime rate in Baltimore and elsewhere than almost anything else one could imagine.

Most Marylanders understand this, and it's why the state's most economically successful jurisdictions, including Montgomery and Howard counties, take particular pride in the quality of schools and invest huge sums in them. Mr. Franchot and his cheering section point to polls that show a majority of state residents would prefer school started after Labor Day. But voters also want the best possible education for their children and grandchildren and may not realize the extent to which these two goals conflict. When in doubt, let school boards decide.

One more point neither Governor Hogan nor the comptroller have likely considered. People are going to resent this mandate — the outcry from parents and teachers is likely to prove long and loud — and that ire is bound to rub off on Ocean City. That kind of negative association is the last thing the Eastern Shore resort town needs, considering its own controversies with crime, public brawls, underage drinking and flooding. Will Ocean City now be regarded as the reason Maryland's youth are looked upon first as dishwashers and pizza deliverers rather than future scientists or tech wizards?

We have decried the extent to which Mr. Hogan and Mr. Franchot have interfered with local school policies from their vantage of the Board of Public Works before, and no doubt we will have to do so again. Their alliance has proven too mutually advantageous, if disastrous for the school systems and education professionals that have run afoul of their bullying, for them to mend their ways. Now, they appear to be on the verge of setting a new standard for misguided behavior. What's next, mandating the teaching of creationism in science class? A ban on sex education? The General Assembly may yet intervene — lawmakers have rejected the post-Labor Day mandate in the past — but perhaps that kind of confrontation with Democrats in Annapolis over a potential wedge issue is what the governor wants in the first place.

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