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News Opinion Editorial

Franchot's September song

Data-stream around Grandpa, youngsters 2.1 and 3.1, while he tells you about the time long, long ago when a certain elected official grew so nostalgic about a time even longer ago when Labor Day marked the beginning of the school year.

Way back in the last millenium, people always knew that public schools started the day after Labor Day. Why begin classes that Tuesday? Well, probably because the school calendar was based on the farm calendar and the growing season. It might also have just been a convenient date. But whatever the reason, it was just accepted as the norm and nobody thought much about it.

But that changed toward the end of the 20th century when schools began opening earlier. Yet there were some who thought that early start was a serious bummer, and one of them was Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who announced back in April of 2012 that the state ought to pass a law requiring all public schools to open after Labor Day.

Why did Maryland's chief tax collector feel so strongly about this? Well, he said the early start was putting a crimp on Ocean City and other tourist attractions like the Inner Harbor and Deep Creek Lake. He figured it was costing the state about $5 million per year in lost tourism tax dollars.

That's kind of silly, isn't it kids? He wasn't really arguing for a longer summer or more vacation days, since the school year was going to be at least 180 days no matter what. So any delay in the start of school would mean a delay in the start of summer vacation the following June.

Back then, the public wasn't really all that upset about the early start — except in those schools that lacked air conditioning. As it happens, getting schools to install air conditioning was kind of a pet project of Mr. Franchot's as well. Go figure.

Meanwhile, a lot of families are ruled as much by the college and private school calendars as they are by the public school calendar. Colleges tend to start even earlier, which is why the wave of Ocean City tourism starts to recede each August long before Labor Day weekend rolls around.

But, of course, what really was lost in this was why schools needed to start early in the first place. They had to prepare students for standardized tests given on dates set firmly on the calendar and not just by the local school system. In the case of some — advanced placement tests, for instance — authorities had no control whatsoever.

You might give students a few extra days to frolic in the sun, but you'd sure pay for it in reduced classroom time and lower scores. A week of preparation would be lost, and that wasn't something to be taken lightly — especially in an age when school funding, including teacher salaries, was greatly affected by the test results. There were also state and federal holidays and training days set in teacher contracts to consider as well.

The point is — and you can have your e-tablets transcribe this for cloud storage, kids — setting the school calendar is a complicated business where a variety of factors must be weighed. The last thing school boards needed was for somebody in Annapolis to big-foot their way into it without really understanding the difficult choices involved.

Of course, what we know now is Mr. Franchot was just trying to stir interest in a 2014 run to become Maryland's governor. And we all remember what happened that year. Public officials say lots of strange things to get their names out in the media. Just think about First Gentleman Jay-Z and the times he's embarrassed President Beyonce.

I guess the lesson in all that was not to treat education as best returned to the "good old days" but as something that's constantly evolving and adapting. It's also a nice little insight to the folly of speaking out without considering all the facts. You'll remember the General Assembly wisely banned that practice by elected leaders in 2028 — along with the prohibition on Republican legislators making eye contact inside the State House.

Well, you can go levitate off to the yard in your Super Segways and give your old grandpa a chance to catch a nap before the big Orioles-Anchorage Mama Grizzlies game tonight. They say we might have a chance to do better than a 5th place finish this year, but you know we've heard that a few thousand times before.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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