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Let school boards decide when classes should begin

Families with children enjoy an extra week of summer after Gov. Larry Hogan's executive order delayed school until after Labor Day. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

On Wednesday at 2 p.m., the state Senate committee overseeing education, health and the environment will conduct a hearing on legislation that would allow Maryland’s 24 school boards to decide for themselves if their systems are better off starting school before or after Labor Day. We predict its passage. Not only because the bill’s co-sponsor is Sen. Paul Pinsky, the committee’s chairman, but because — at least from an educational perspective — there’s really no good argument against it.

Local boards of education have long had the authority to decide which day to open and which to close as long as they met state requirements to educate students for a certain number of days over a 10-month period. But all that changed in 2016 when Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order requiring systems to open schools after Labor Day while closing them no later than June 15. So adamant was he on the point that within a matter of weeks he signed a second executive order reinforcing his first and making it more difficult for the state school board to grant a waiver to local systems that sought an earlier opening.

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Why the delay in starting school? Mostly, it appeared to be about helping Ocean City find temporary minimum-wage workers in late August when college students leave for the opening of their own schools. But there was also an obvious political component: It was an especially important issue to Comptroller Peter Franchot, a key Democratic ally to Governor Hogan and the swing vote on the state Board of Public Works. Mr. Hogan’s endorsement of Mr. Franchot’s “Let summer be summer” campaign helped cement their alliance — and assure that the popular Democrat did not challenge the Republican incumbent in the 2018 election, or, as it would turn out, so much as endorse his opponent.

The late school start came with some sacrifice, however. It meant that Maryland students were put at a disadvantage for the academically-challenging Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests, both of which are administered on a fixed date in May. It made it more difficult for parents of young children to find child care for an extra week or more, worsened the “skills loss” of summer vacation, compromised nutrition for low-income students who qualify for school-based programs, and had a cascading effect on the rest of the school calendar meaning, among other things, a dramatic shortening of spring break in some districts.

As could be expected, Mr. Franchot isn’t happy with the bill sponsored by Sens. Pinsky and Montgomery County Democrat Nancy King. On his Facebook page, he called on the General Assembly to defeat it, saying the executive order mandating a post-Labor Day start has “proven to be highly popular with families across our state” as well as a “godsend for local, independent businesses that are already struggling to succeed.” We find those assertions dubious at best, and considering how poorly Maryland public school students have been doing lately on certain standardized tests (less than one-third passed the PARCC math test and less than 42 percent in grades three to eight passed English last year), we’d think the comptroller would be more worried about what happens when school is in session than the precise dates when it is not.

But ignoring those education-minded objections, there’s a more basic question: If it’s so popular, why continue the mandate? If families want “summer to be summer” rather than “spring break to be spring break” and are happy with a post-Labor Day start, why not return the authority to school boards? Governor Hogan can simply declare his two-year experiment in imposing his will on school systems to be a success and let “local control of schools be local control of schools.” Those parents whom Mr. Franchot claims love the calendar will surely not stand to have an early start imposed on them by their school board — particularly given the number who choose board members directly in nonpartisan elections.

There ought be just one standard for deciding when to start schools: What’s best for students? School systems can mull that over, hear from parents and educators, and make the smartest choice. After all, lawmakers are already looking to upgrade schools statewide, spending perhaps billions of dollars more to improve educational outcomes. If they can help that cause by letting school boards figure out which approach maximizes student performance, shouldn’t they? Here’s the cost to state taxpayers for Kirwan Commission upgrades: $3.8 billion. Here’s the cost of leaving the school calendar decision to Maryland’s 24 subdivisions: $0. Take all the time you need to decide whether that latter option is worth a shot.

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