Look who’s not in class

Published 12:03 am Thursday, August 20, 2015

GIVE SCHOOLS FLEXIBILITY

Lawmakers who extol the value of charter schools and vote to fund private-school vouchers should take a look around today. Notice all the kids who are already back in school?

Most private schools and charter schools started classes this week, some last week. And early college programs — some of the most successful and innovative public  high schools in the state —resumed classes two weeks ago.

Why are traditional public schools lagging behind in starting the school year? The legislature makes them do it. State law is explicit about it: “Except for year-round schools, the opening date for students shall be no earlier than the Monday closest to August 26, and the closing date for students shall be no later than the Friday closest to June 11.” A coalition of real estate agents, tourism officials and some parents convinced legislators in 2004 that they needed to protect long summer vacations, and the General Assembly has stuck by the law ever since.   

Educators and individual legislators have tried time and again to change the law so school boards could have the flexibility to set their own calendar. This year lawmakers filed 40 bills seeking that latitude for different systems in the state, since a statewide effort appeared doomed. None of those bills passed either chamber before the crossover deadline. Anything can happen in the frenzied closing days of the session, but the issue looks dead for 2015.

That’s too bad. Ideally, schools would end the first semester and exams before Christmas break. Starting in late August pushes those exams into January after students have been on a long break. The straight-jacket-like calendar law leaves no room for movement.

Calendar inflexibility is one small example of how the General Assembly speaks with a forked tongue on education. Lawmakers call for reform, innovation and better student test scores, then forbid traditional public schools from adopting the simplest “best practice” exercised across the non-traditional school spectrum — start classes when it’s most beneficial for students and educators.

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