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Calendar law’s days numbered

North Carolina is inching toward giving local boards more power over school calendars, a return to sanity that citizens should vociferously support.

First, the disappointing news: The Program Evaluation Division of the General Assembly studied the school calendar issue and concluded there was no way to satisfy all stakeholders, so lawmakers should leave the law essentially as is. The details of the report, however, tell a different story.

For over a decade, state law has tied the hands of local school boards when setting their calendars. The law mandates that classes start no earlier than late August and dismiss before mid-June, a policy driven by a tourism industry that wants families to frolic in vacationland all the way through August. Cheap teenage labor also factors in.

Tourism is a major player in the state’s economy, but the education consequences of the law should far outweigh commercial concerns. High schools suffer the most, with classes starting too late to hold exams before the winter break and operating out-of-sync with the community colleges where some students want to take classes.

Tellingly, private and charter schools freed from state constraints typically start their classes several days earlier than public schools.

The committee’s report doesn’t take an outright stand on which is more important, tourism or education, but its “no action” recommendation clearly favors the tourism side. That was the option favored by the hospitality industry, Realtors, restaurants, travel and tourism, and vacation rental managers.

Education stakeholders who participated in the study favored starting school as early as Aug. 10 and ending by May 31. Supporters included associations representing teachers, administrators and school boards, as well as think-tanks that seldom agree with each other — the conservative John Locke Foundation and the progressive N.C. Justice Center. Nevertheless, the committee advocated for the status quo.

The committee did recommend one change, and it’s a telling one, to make an exception to the law for low-performing schools and districts. Calendar flexibility could increase student performance and help reduce summer learning loss, the report says, amazingly. If flexibility might help low-performing schools, is there reason to think it would not benefit all schools?

Despite the report’s recommendation, those who favor calendar flexibility can find support for their position on the pages within — and in the community at large. Legislators have already filed local bills to empower school boards such as Rowan- Salisbury to set their own opening and closing dates. That is the best option — not a different range of dates mandated by the state, but total flexibility. As long as the required instructional hours are included, school boards should be able to tailor calendars to their students’ needs.

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