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Extending summer vacation hurts at-risk students [Commentary]

Comptroller Peter Franchot, by starting a petition drive, has embarked on a policy initiative to require all Maryland public schools start the school calendar after Labor Day. His policy proposal is given political cover through a commission report from the "Task Force to Study a Post-Labor Start Date for Maryland Public Schools." That commission report is flawed, and I believe misguided. It will have deleterious consequences that have not been fully considered.

The tagline for his campaign, "Let Summer Be Summer," speaks volumes. "Busy families have so little time to spend together to build lifelong memories. Increasingly, the end-of-summer vacation no longer happens because of decisions to begin school a week, or even ten days, before Labor Day," Comptroller Franchot said in a press release about the petition drive. "This not only cuts into one last chance for Marylanders to spend time together as a family, but it also negatively impacts small businesses throughout our state. We all need to do what we can to support small businesses and promote economic activity. To continue as we have causes unnecessary harm to our economy for no good reason."

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As laudatory as "creating memories" and "quality family time" sound, they reflect the comptroller's own middle class/upper class sensibilities. The proposal is about economic impact: The real motivation is to generate additional tax revenue — estimated to be $74.3 million — for the state and local jurisdictions that are heavily dependent on tourism. I realize the comptroller's proposal is a politically popular position in many parts of the state, but having reviewed the commission report itself, I find it woefully inadequate in addressing the impact this action will have on children.

Unlike children in middle and higher income households, children in lower socio-economic households generally do not have access to enrichment activities during the summer. The result is that children lacking summer enrichment can experience learning loss of as much as 30 percent compared to those who do have enrichment-filled summers. These children need to return to school sooner rather than later because for many families school provides the most constructive enrichment to which they have access.

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In Washington County, where I reside, at-risk children comprise nearly 50 percent of all children. Here, summer vacation equates to approximately 45 weekdays away from school. Under Mr. Franchot's proposal, summer vacation would increase eight weekdays. Yes, those eight days would be made up by adding a day here and a day there during the school year. However, it is the extended absence during the summer that has a detrimental impact on students' learning. This is an 18 percent increase in the length of vacation and length away from enrichment activities for at-risk children. They are the ones who suffer from his proposal.

At a minimum, the report used to outline his proposal is flawed. It states that there is no firm evidence to indicate that extending summer vacation will have an impact. This statement is true but disingenuous. I can find no research to suggest that his position has been studied. If at risk children experience as much as 30 percent summer learning loss, how can extending the period when this occurs not have a negative impact?

Secondly, our state's education system compares well with those of other states. However, there is no assurance that this will continue. I believe the state's system of education needs to become more flexible and innovative, not less. This extends to the school calendar, too. Our historic school calendar has its roots in an agrarian society. As our societal demands change, communities may find that this model no longer meets their needs. Other states and societies are experimenting or implementing quadmester or quinmester school calendar systems. These systems have advantages, not only for families, for at risk children, but also for use of school resources. Mr. Franchot's policy proposal would deny any school system the local option of implementing such a model. Innovation should be encouraged, not prohibited by the kind of fiat that your proposal would bring to education policy.

David Hanlin is chairman of the Rotary Literacy Task Force for the Rotary Club of Hagerstown. His email is d.hanlin@myactv.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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