Let Local Schools Decide Their Calendars

More districts seeking freedom from Labor Day mandate

An increasing number of school districts want to open their doors to students in August. This growing demand provides further justification for ending the requirement that districts ask state bureaucrats for permission to start the academic year before Labor Day.

The Detroit News reported that the number of local school districts, intermediate school districts and charter schools seeking calendar waivers from the Michigan Department of Education nearly doubled – from 67 in 2016 to 123 this year. The number of districts affected could be much higher since the 24 waivers obtained by intermediate school districts are available to all the districts within their boundaries.

The state law setting Labor Day as the default school start date was only adopted in 2006. Recently, there’s momentum to roll back the mandate.

There is some evidence that making summer breaks shorter prevents disadvantaged students from falling further behind their peers. But overall, as with many education policy proposals, the research is inconclusive. A year-round calendar may help some students learn more, but it hasn’t shown signs of causing harm.

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Unless you count the state’s tourism industry, which says the 11-year-old law has boosted hotel occupancy and revenues. Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association president and CEO Deanna Richeson was quoted in The Detroit News saying parents want to make vacation getaways during July and August. If so, they can persuade their local board of education to start school after Labor Day. Or they could seek to enroll in a neighboring district with a different calendar, or simply adjust their vacation plans.

There is no perfect solution to satisfy everyone, but educational concerns should take precedence over one industry’s concerns. And those decisions are best made closest to the families being served.

Most financial support for Michigan public schools comes from tax dollars collected and doled out at the state level, so state officials have some valid interest in setting education policies. But there is no compelling case that starting school after Labor Day generally benefits students, and some reason to believe otherwise.

Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, has introduced Senate Bill 271 to ease Lansing’s pressure on school districts seeking more calendar flexibility. His bill would allow all schools to operate on Tuesdays through Thursdays in August, which would preserve long weekends for family outings up north while, at least in some cases, alleviating concerns about summer learning loss. SB 271 passed out of committee more than four months ago, and it has been awaiting action on the Senate floor ever since.

It’s telling that making such a modest proposed change to rigid education industry norms has proved to be a slow and challenging task. What, then, will it take to create an education system nimble enough to offer students statewide true personalized learning?

Let locally accountable boards decide on the schedules that work for their parents and educators. Together, maybe their diverse calendar decisions will lengthen the season for Michigan residents to enjoy our state’s natural beauty.

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