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Maryland Tourism Coalition: Starting school after Labor Day is reasonable public policy

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)

Euripides once said, “Experience, travel — these are an education in themselves.” Truer words were never spoken, especially for those who have traveled in and around Maryland. Our diverse cultural and historic assets, natural resources and recreational opportunities are second to none. Each day trip to Antietam Battlefield, each afternoon spent touring Baltimore museums, each weekend on the Eastern Shore can be a learning experience, no matter where our guests are visiting from.

Maryland’s tour and travel industry encourages and supports these experiences, especially for young people. Many of our attractions and museums offer discounts and fee waivers to school groups and collaborate with teachers to develop detailed lesson plans related to their visits. Tourism tax revenue has been consistently directed toward funding educational priorities. Worcester County, for example, recently completed a more than $40 million renovation of Snow Hill High School, a project that simply would not have been possible without the support of taxes generated in Ocean City. Tourism and education in Maryland are now, and always have been, partners.

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That’s why it’s so disheartening to see the contentious debate in Annapolis over when Maryland students should go back to school characterized as fight between tourism and education. We are told those who support a statewide post-Labor Day school start care only about profits and cheap labor. We are told they would sacrifice the well-being of Maryland students in pursuit of a few extra dollars in revenue. We are told the tourism industry prioritizes its own bottom line over the educational outcomes of Maryland schools. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As legislators are challenging Gov. Larry Hogan’s order that forced public schools to open after Labor Day, Hogan promised he would send the measure to referendum for Maryland voters to decide if necessary.

Yes, it is true that Gov. Larry Hogan’s 2016 executive order mandating that schools start after Labor Day and end by June 15th has, in fact, resulted in heightened economic activity within Maryland’s tourism sector — and not just in Ocean City. Since the governor’s order, attendance has been up at the Maryland State Fair, and local jurisdictions statewide have reported increased visitation. A 2013 report by the comptroller’s office, completed before Governor Hogan took office, estimated a post-Labor Day school start would generate an “additional $74.3 million in direct economic activity, including $3.7 million in new wages and a separate $7.7 million in state and local revenue.” The positive impact on Maryland’s economy is undeniable, and that’s a good thing.

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But, and this is critical, no matter how good it may be for the economy, Maryland’s tourism community would never support this or any policy if it was found to be detrimental to the educational outcomes in our schools. The tourism community firmly believes education should be among our state's highest priorities. In 2013 a bipartisan task force appointed by then Gov. Martin O’Malley overwhelmingly favored statewide post-Labor Day school after carefully studying the issue for many months. They concluded that such a policy would not hurt Maryland students, and so far, no statistical data has proven otherwise. Despite a few anecdotal stories, the negative impact predicted by those who opposed post-Labor Day school has not materialized.

The Maryland state Senate passed a bill Tuesday that overturns Gov. Larry Hogan’s order that public schools must start their year after Labor Day.

Some argue that the job of setting the instructional calendar is best left to district school boards, and that’s a fair point. It’s important to remember, however, that school boards are still empowered to set their own calendars as long as they fit into the parameters laid out in the governor’s order. It’s not unprecedented to require that school boards adhere to certain statewide standards with respect to education. For example, Annapolis already mandates that every district in the state include 180 instructional days in their calendar. It’s also worth noting that many Maryland families may live in one county but send their children to daycare or summer camp in a different county. Likewise, teachers may live in one county, but teach in another, and perhaps work a summer job in yet another. Standardizing the school calendar statewide simply makes it much easier for families and school employees to plan for childcare and travel.

Starting school after Labor Day is reasonable public policy that strengthens our economy without negatively impacting the quality of our educational system. It is supported by nearly 70 percent of Marylanders, according to 2016 polling. Instead of revisiting this issue for what appear to be purely political motives, we should be working together on new and creative ways to improve and enhance education for Maryland students year-round, in and out of the classroom. Regardless of what happens in Annapolis, the tourism community will continue to be a steadfast supporter of education, collaborating with teachers, students and families to provide unforgettable learning experiences all across Maryland. Tourism and education are now, and always will be, partners.

Chris Riehl is first vice chair of the Maryland Tourism Coalition; his email is chris@rentatour.com.

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