Md. Gov. Larry Hogan chooses tourism over education

Op-ed: If Md.'s governor really wanted to invest in the state's economy, he would lengthen the school year.

Gov. Larry Hogan has doubled down in his bid to force Maryland public schools to fit 180 days of instruction (not to mention professional development, holidays and weather-related closures) into a school year that begins after Labor Day and ends by June 15th. The policy — similar to Virginia's so-called "King's Dominion law" — was first introduced in August via executive order and described as a boon to tourism that would give families more time to relax on the beach. After school districts understandably balked, he issued a second executive order last week, making it more difficult for district officials to obtain waivers to his rule.

As education researchers, we condemn the governor's interference in education policy and question the impact of extended summer holidays on the thousands of Maryland youngsters who do not spend the warmer months vacationing at tourist sites.

The potential economic bonus to Maryland's beach communities by extending summer holidays through Labor Day comes at a substantial cost to young children. Disparities in achievement scores are seen as early as kindergarten. During the school year, children learn at the same rate, regardless of their families' economic status — not so during summers. Middle-income families typically provide structured activities through camps or summer programs, and their children retain and gain academic skills. In contrast, parents who are unable to afford expensive summer camps are often forced to turn to the electronic baby sitter known as the television, or other unhealthy solutions, and their children lose achievement skills. By high school, children in lower-income families have heightened rates of drop-out and lower enrollment in college preparation classes due in part to the snowballing effects of this summer achievement gap. Disparities like these, which begin in childhood, frequently extend into adulthood, impacting the labor market and individual economic opportunities.

The summer break can also undermine children's health. With federal support, schools provide relatively healthy food and opportunities for structured physical activities. Over 80 percent of Baltimore's children qualify for subsidized school meals, meaning that many are living in households that lack resources for adequate food. Without access to school nutrition programs, which operate at reduced scale during the summer, and with food deserts that characterize inner-cities, children suffer from either lack of enough food or reliance on low-quality food, increasing their risk of being underweight or obese.

The traditional September to June calendar is a product of an era when children worked on the family farm. As fewer than 2 percent of U.S. families are involved in farm production today, tourism is the current rationale for extended summer breaks. Year-round school calendars, with multiple short breaks distributed throughout the year, are gaining in popularity because they benefit student learning and health. They also smooth out the boom and bust nature of tourism, allowing families to travel during off-peak vacation times. With staggered schedules — different districts adopting slightly different breaks — communities that rely on tourism can benefit from a more consistent supply of visitors throughout the year. A recent study found that families in year-round schools did not travel less than those in traditional schools, but that their patterns of travel differed.

The economic argument guiding the post Labor Day school start time is short-sighted. Although an extension of a few extra weeks of tourism may have an immediate benefit for Ocean City and other tourist centers, the long range effects are unlikely to have a major impact on the state's economy. In contrast, as World Bank economists emphasize, an investment in children's education promotes equity, while reducing academic disparities and encouraging long term academic success.

The foundations of adult health, well-being, economic capability, and social responsibility are formed during childhood. To achieve an economic boon for the future of Maryland and other states, we recommend reducing disparities and boosting equity by increasing instructional days, lengthening the academic year and making early education a cornerstone of investments.

Maureen Black (mblack@umaryland.edu) is a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a Distinguished Fellow at non-profit research firm RTI International, where Amber Gove (agove@rti.org) is the international education director of research.

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