Politics & Government

Protect tourism or give schools flexibility? The calendar fight is raging again in NC.

The beach stand looking south from the Johnny Mercer pier at Wrightsville Beach, NC, on July 2, 2015, is crowded with thousands of vacationers. The school calendar law was passed with the support of the tourism industry, which was worried about how schools were shortening summer break.
The beach stand looking south from the Johnny Mercer pier at Wrightsville Beach, NC, on July 2, 2015, is crowded with thousands of vacationers. The school calendar law was passed with the support of the tourism industry, which was worried about how schools were shortening summer break. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A new battle is shaping up in the long-running fight between North Carolina’s public schools and the tourism industry over who should be responsible for determining when the school year begins and ends.

For more than a decade, the state’s school calendar law has required school districts to begin the school year in late August and end by early June. State lawmakers who want to give school districts more flexibility to open earlier in August are mounting a new push with a flurry of different bills designed to see if they can get exceptions made to the calendar law.

“On the House side, we’ve consistently supported the ability of our LEAs (local education agencies) to make some adjustments to meet their needs,” Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and co-chair of the House Education Committee, said Thursday. “The data has been pretty clear about allowing some calendar adjustments to meet the needs, particularly of low-performing students.”

But tourism officials, who have successfully fought off changes to the school calendar law, say they’re determined to protect what they call “North Carolina’s most precious tourism industry national resource — summer.”

“The North Carolina Travel Industry Association is working collaboratively with legislators to strengthen North Carolina’s education system by protecting the state’s $23.9 billion tourism industry,” Vincent Chelena, the association’s executive director, said in a statement.

“As the second largest industry in the state, tourism not only creates and sustains good paying jobs for North Carolinians, but it also contributes greatly to state and local government tax bases that pay teacher salaries, builds schools, and lowers class size.”

The fate of any school calendar flexibility legislation may hinge again on the state Senate, which didn’t act on a pair of bills passed by the House in 2017.

“With over 20 school calendar flexibility bills having been filed this Session in the House and Senate already, we’ll have to carefully look at the proposals to see if any specific ones might be considered moving forward,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican and co-chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

“I have long supported calendar flexibility and am actively in conversations with administrators in local LEAs and community colleges to sift through potential solutions.”

The school calendar law was passed by the General Assembly in 2004 at the request of the tourism industry and some parents. These groups were concerned about how the school year was starting earlier and earlier in August, cutting into summer vacation time.

Under current state law, schools can start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. Some schools, such as charter schools, year-round schools and some low-performing schools, are exempt from the law.

School districts have complained that the calendar law limits their ability to make up time lost due to snow and other weather emergencies.

“Given North Carolina’s recent experiences with Hurricanes Florence, Michael and Matthew, along with numerous annual snowstorms, locally elected officials could better plan and prepare for weather related school closings if they had more control to set local school calendars,” according to the N.C. School Boards Association’s 2019-29 legislative agenda.

School officials say that the calendar law is especially a hardship for high school students because it causes fall semester to end after winter break and doesn’t line up with the calendar used at community colleges, The School Boards Association says student achievement could go up if final exams are scheduled before winter break.

“The data is pretty clear about the efficacy of aligning the calendars for the benefit of the growing numbers of students taking college courses while they’re still in high school,” Horn said. “We think the time is right to get traction to put accountability into the calendar as well as addressing a demonstrated need for the growing number of students across the state that are going after college credit while in high school.”

Since Jan. 30, 22 school calendar bills have been filed in the General Assembly that would allow districts to set their own opening and closing dates or tie it into the calendar used by the local community college. The bills would give calendar flexibility to 51 of the state’s 115 school districts.

The one statewide bill, House Bill 79, would allow any school district to begin the school year earlier by aligning its calendar with its local community college. For instance, Durham Tech opened this school year on Aug. 13 while Wake Tech began Aug. 16.

All three House Education Committee co-chairs are the primary sponsors of House Bill 79.

Chelena of the N.C. Travel Industry Association said that if groups want the calendars to align then the community colleges should change their start and end dates to match what’s now required for the K-12 schools. He said a later start date for community colleges would give calendar reform advocates what they want and also “strengthen North Carolina’s tourism industry, create more good paying jobs in the state, and expand funding for public education.”

Horn says it’s inevitable in his opinion that school calendar flexibility will be granted. But he admits he’s not sure if it will happen this year. In the meantime, he said House lawmakers are hoping that their Senate colleagues will agree to at least one of the bills that have been filed.

“Maybe if you won’t buy this one, maybe you’ll give us this,” Horn said.

Chelena was more confident that the Senate wouldn’t agree to changes in the calendar law.

“We understand the political pressure Representatives feel from local school boards,” Chelena said. “However, legislators do not want to hurt North Carolina jobs and small businesses that pay for public schools. There is a safety for these legislators knowing that the Senate will not pass these bills.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.