Tourism vs. education

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 1, 2015

N.C. Reps. Harry Warren and Carl Ford deserve kudos for sponsoring a bill that would give Rowan-Salisbury Schools  more flexibility in setting their calendar each year. Ditto for legislators representing dozens of school districts around the state.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of granting this urgent wish statewide looks dim without a surge in grassroots support from voters. Opposition from the state’s tourism industry stopped similar legislation in the 2013-14 sessions of the General Assembly, and that group is just as strong this year.

The state has been through a 10-year experiment with the school calendar that has tied school officials’ hands. The law forbids starting the school year before “the Monday closest to Aug. 26” or ending past the second week of June. That’s hard enough with teacher workdays, holiday breaks and the like. Two weeks of icy weather is disastrous.

The restrictive law came about because lawmakers said the longer school year was infringing on the traditional summer break and killing the month of August for the tourism.

North Carolina tourism is a $20 billion industry. Rolf Blizzard, a Raleigh-based hotel owner and chairman of the North Carolina Travel and Tourism Coalition, says the school calendar law “has served North Carolina well for a decade.”

It may have served tourism well, but the calendar law has handicapped students, especially those in high school. Exams that for eons wrapped up the fall semester before Christmas break had to move to mid-January, when the information is no longer fresh in students’ minds. Further, students who graduate at the end of the fall semester cannot immediately enroll in colleges whose spring semester has already begun. And Early College programs that operate on the community college’s calendar are out of sync with the rest of the local school system.

Local bills like the one Warren and Ford introduced are proliferating because a statewide bill appears to be a non-starter. Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, is trying to get advocates on both sides of the issue to agree to a study committee the would craft statewide legislation, but such committees operate between sessions. Unless the local bills make some headway, the school calendar will remain cemented to a calendar tailored to the tourism industry for at least another year or two. Thus North Carolina’s push to be “business friendly” crosses an invisible line —  the one between supporting industry and pandering to it.