Local schools, local decisions

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Though they’ve been back in class after Christmas break for a couple of weeks, most public schools across the state don’t  start their second semester until this week — a reminder of the crazy schedule the legislature forced on schools several years ago.

Fixing that situation and giving schools more flexibility should be a high priority for the N.C. General Assembly this year. It makes much more sense to let local school boards set calendars to meet the needs of their students and community.

For generations, the holiday season was the dividing line between first and second semester. To work in teacher workdays and other requirements, in the 1990s school systems started moving the beginning of school back earlier and earlier. Students in Rowan-Salisbury and many other systems headed back to class in the first week of August for several years.

Lots of people complained. They remembered when school started after Labor Day. Those who complained the loudest happened to run resorts and other establishments on the coast. They convinced the legislature that putting kids in school in August was robbing the tourism industry of nearly a month’s worth of family-vacation revenue. The early start also took away some of their least expensive workers — high school students. So in 2004, the legislature mandated that schools start on the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end the Friday nearest to June 11.

Setting a school calendar within those parameters has been a long-running nightmare for superintendents and school boards. “It kills us on professional development,” says State Sen. Tom McInnis, who brought up the calendar issue while visiting the Post on Tuesday. He saw the problem up close while serving on the Richmond County Board of Education.

At least two school systems — Pender and New Hanover counties —are lobbying lawmakers to return the control of calendars back to local boards of education. According to the Star-News of Wilmington, the movement is backed by the N.C. School Boards Association and strongly opposed by the coastal tourism industry.

Domestic and international visitors to North Carolina spent more than $20 billion in 2013. Tourism is undoubtedly an important part of the state’s economic engine. But that fact has to be balanced with the even more important business of educating North Carolina’s future workforce. How and when that schooling takes place should be driven by the goals of effectiveness and efficiency, not by the desires of the tourism industry.