Students go back to school for the first time Tuesday in only one school system in Maryland. That would be Worcester County, home of Ocean City where the lure of sun, sand — and the availability of teen labor — convinced the local school board to rewrite the academic calendar for the 2014-2015 year. Elsewhere, public school systems opened last week, and they appear universally satisfied with their choice.
That 23 of Maryland's 24 school systems continue to prefer a pre-Labor Day starting date would seem to present a teachable moment to everyone but Comptroller Peter Franchot, who continues his quixotic crusade to force a longer summer break. His latest effort includes a petition for which he has already collected 2,500 signatures asking the General Assembly to pass a law forcing a post-Labor Day start on all public schools in the state.
We have criticized the state's chief tax collector before for his myopic view on the subject, but it appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Worse, the two-week-old petition effort may actually have picked up momentum thanks to a state task force — conveniently stacked with hospitality industry representatives and sympathetic lawmakers — that overwhelmingly endorsed a similar view in June.
Mr. Franchot's argument is that starting the school year after Labor Day would provide a boost to Maryland's economy on two levels. First, it would make it possible for hotels, restaurants, arcades and other employers in Ocean City to retain student help longer. But secondly, it would make it possible for families with school-age children to travel to Ocean City and other tourism destinations up through Labor Day weekend without any conflict with school or homework.
These are familiar arguments, and they are not entirely without merit, although how much of an economic boost such a change would provide is often overstated. Just because school starts a week or so later doesn't mean the behavior of tens of thousands of tourists will be profoundly changed. Travel season begins to wane by mid-August, and the early return to school of college students likely has a bigger impact.
But here's the real problem with forcing schools to comply: It has nothing to do with the quality of public education in Maryland. That's what ought to be this state's highest priority. The financial reward of a few more rounds of skee-ball or an extra serving of Thrasher's French fries pales compared to the economic impact of whether schools are adequately teaching their students.
The unanimity within public education is striking: School superintendents, principals, teachers and school boards near-universally oppose the late start, chiefly because it's one more headache they don't need. School calendars are complex things that must take into account religious holidays, teacher training days and winter and spring breaks (during which a lot of families like to travel to tourism destinations, incidentally). Maintaining a 180-day school years means either compressing the schedule or extending it into the following summer.
Schools learned the hard way this past winter that Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate. The record number of snow days was tough enough — Garrett County lost a whopping 20 days to inclement weather, the equivalent of a month — but what if the school year was so compressed that there was no wiggle room? Schools might have remained in session for the rest of June or else the school year severely shortened and the students shortchanged.
The point is not to go soft on schools, it's to go harder on them. We should be demanding excellence, graduates who are prepared for college or to enter the workforce and compete. If starting school later helped in this regard, we'd be praising the proposal up one side and down the other. But it's telling that superintendents don't want it. Their priority, rightfully, is educating youngsters, not helping vendors fill some minimum wage jobs for a few more days.
Let school systems decide this issue for themselves. If some honestly believe that a late start is either helpful or at least unharmful to education, then fine. But don't interfere with the real economic engine of Maryland — creating better opportunities for the next generation through quality education — for a far less consequential purpose. At a time when educators are dealing with major changes in curriculum, standardized testing and teacher evaluations to name just a few areas of reform and still face serious challenges in helping disadvantaged and minority children succeed, the last thing they need is this additional distraction to achieving their vital bottom line of better classes, better teaching, better learning for all.
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