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Binker: Schoolyard brawl over calendar flexibility returns to Raleigh

By Mark Binker

RALEIGH — If you want to pick a fight at the General Assembly in no time flat, just say two little words: school calendar.

Debates over a pair of recently vetted House bills that would send students back to their books by mid-August brought back memories of some of the most raucous legislative fights we scruffy media types can recall.

“If these things happen, you’re going to have a huge uprising of elementary parents and other citizens,” Louise Lee told a House committee last week.

Back in 2004, Lee and her group, Save Our Summers, rallied parents irked that vacation plans were getting interrupted by early-August school start dates. They deluged legislators with phone calls and in-person visits. Tourism businesses that missed out on cheap high school student labor and beach rental property owners also joined the coalition pushing for calendar restrictions.

The results were rules that now, after a few adjustments, say schools that don’t operate on year-round calendars will begin around Aug. 26, give or take a few days, and end around June 11.

That law has kept the peace for more than a decade, but school districts across the state have chafed against the restrictions. Educators say that the traditional school calendar was set up with kids working on family farms in mind, not kids who need to be ready to work with computer server farms.

More than 60 House and Senate bills have been filed this year by lawmakers looking to loosen the restrictions. Most seek one-off exceptions for a single school district and don’t have a prayer of getting a hearing. But their authors can say they’ve done a little something when aggravated school superintendents from back home call. It turns out scheduling first semester exams a week or so after students use Christmas break to empty their heads of knowledge is bad for test scores.

It’s not hard to see both sides of this debate. When I was a teenager back in the Jurassic Period, I spent summers playing camp counselor and couldn’t have worked my 10-week contract without a long break from reading, writing and arithmetic.

But I’m also the parent of a couple of school-aged rapscallions, and thus have some sympathy for lawmakers like Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, and Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, who suggest academic priorities, rather than the economic prospects of your seaside rental, ought to drive the school calendar.  McGrady’s bill would allow public schools to start as early as Aug. 15 in order to link up with community college calendars — some high school students take community college classes — while Warren’s bill allows 20 school districts to experiment with Aug. 10 starts.

It turns out about 100 of their House colleagues liked those ideas when they got put to a vote, but not Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, who praised the existing calendar law as fostering a decades-long boom in tourism revenue.

“We have students working in campgrounds. We have student working in the restaurant industry,” McElraft told her colleagues. Students and teachers alike, she said, might have difficulty snagging temporary gigs if they couldn’t work the whole summer.

So are parents more worried about the jobs their kids will get slinging mulch this July or where students’ taxpayer funded education will take them in the real world, where just two weeks vacation is a nice perk?

As Rep. Amos Quick, D-Guilford, put it, “The proudest I’ve been of my daughters was when they graduated high school and college, not when they slid down the slide at the water park, not when we went to the beach picking up sea shells.”

The folks on either side of the issues lose no opportunity to fling statistics at one another. Recent polls indicate parents prefer longer summers, but other results show voters think local school districts should set their own calendars.

A recent report by legislative evaluators stops short of recommending wholesale changes to the calendar law, but did suggest something that sounds a lot like Warren’s bill. Of course, none of that may matter.

For the past several years, any talk of changing the school calendar law has been smacked down by the Senate. And despite their House colleagues’ optimism, several Senate leaders told me this week they figured the next school calendar debate in their chamber would come sometime around the 8th of Never.

Typical was Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon, R-Carteret, who gave me a chuckle when I asked about calendar bills and said, “I’ve never seen one I liked.”

Mark Binker is Editor of the NC Insider State Government News Service.

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