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Editorial

The good, bad and silliness of a late school start

Nearly all Maryland public school students went back to school Tuesday, the first statewide post-Labor Day K-12 opening day in a generation. That's because Gov. Larry Hogan signed two executive orders last year decreeing it, the first mandating the later start to schools and the second closing loopholes reluctant school boards had hoped to use so they could continue setting their own schedules. Now that the big day has come, the question remains: Was it worthwhile? After considering the various pros and cons, there's only one reasonable assessment available.

Mark the grade as incomplete.

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Mr. Hogan and the measure's most ardent supporter, Comptroller Peter Franchot, have argued that delaying the start of school was convenient for families and a boost to tourism for Ocean City where the governor first officially unveiled the measure one year ago. It is not difficult to find families who are grateful for the extended summer (extra time to play) and those who are not (extra expenses for child care). The impact on schools is also unclear, as there are teachers who welcomed the delay for planning purposes as well as those who fret about worsened summer learning losses and reduced preparation time for high school Advanced Placement tests where thousands of dollars in potential college credit are at stake.

It's far too early to tell if there was much economic advantage. Ocean City business leaders surely are not interested in losing the governor's good will by giving the change anything but a thumb's up. Toll collections at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge don't suggest a mass exodus from Central Maryland to the Eastern Shore. A comparison of Bay Bridge crossings during the week of Aug. 28-Sept. 4 versus the comparable period last year reflects a 5.7 percent rise in car traffic but also a 2.8 percent rise in truck traffic, suggesting that any boon for beach tourism is at least partially explained by the improved economy. Ocean City's hotel occupancy numbers won't be available for weeks yet — and are likely more driven by weather than school policy anyway.

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Unfortunately, much of the downside of a delayed school opening is even more difficult to measure. How many children living in poverty went hungry because school nutrition programs were unavailable? How many youngsters were put at risk by a lack of supervision that extra week? And that "Let Summer Be Summer" philosophy that Mr. Franchot used to rally support to his cause? How will the polling look next year when families discover that one of the major consequences of a later school start is the shortening of spring break from a week to something closer to a long weekend? Will there be a "Let Spring Break Be Spring Break" movement? There's a reason why only one Maryland school board fully embraced the Franchot school calendar prior to now.

But for all the uncertainty about the more apparent pros and cons, there's one shortcoming of this approach about which there is little debate: Mandating a later start to school was never about improving educational outcomes. It just wasn't. Even the initiative's most ardent proponents never framed it as education policy, and that's what makes it so dreadful. Upgrading student performance should be Maryland's top priority, and in a very public, very political manner, Messrs. Hogan and Franchot have made it clear that it isn't. Even if the approach isn't harmful to learning (and we surely aren't making that concession), this should never have become such an important priority that it required a governor to force it on every single school system.

But there's a lot of politics afoot that have nothing to do with schools. From the start, it's been a reflection of Mr. Hogan's eagerness to keep Mr. Franchot's critical vote on the three-member Board of Public Works in the face of an oppositional Democratic majority in the General Assembly. If there's a price to pay for that support in terms of the state's educational system, Mr. Hogan has shown little interest in exploring it, famously blasting criticism of the policy as "silly, trivial, stupid."

Maryland is swiftly approaching a possible crossroads for the future of its schools. A commission headed by former University of Maryland System Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan is likely to recommend boosting state aid to the state's poorest jurisdictions later this year. Will Mr. Hogan take on the difficult issue of equity with half the enthusiasm he's mustered for the educationally empty policy of a mandating statewide school starting date? Maryland's future, economically, socially and morally, is tied to the correct answer.

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