State Politics

Some NC lawmakers want to let schools start earlier in the year

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

More than two dozen legislative bills have been filed this year that would relax state mandates on the start and end dates for the school year, even though a state report recommends giving that kind of discretion only to low-performing schools.

A recent report from the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division cited the multiple competing interests involved as a reason it didn’t recommend changing North Carolina’s school calendar law. Instead, the report recommends allowing low-performing schools and low-performing school districts to have more flexibility in setting their calendars as a way of raising student achievement.

The General Assembly passed a school calendar law in 2004 at the urging of the tourism industry and some parents who were concerned how schools were shortening summer break. Some school districts were starting traditional-calendar classes in the first week of August.

The law says schools can start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. Charter schools and year-round schools are exempted from the law.

The Program Evaluation Division was charged last year with studying the impact of the calendar law. A total of 46,139 North Carolina parents and school personnel were surveyed in September about the calendar law.

The report notes that North Carolina is among 14 states that set when the school year can begin.

“The timing of summer break during August is an important concern,” according to the report released in February. “The school calendar law currently satisfies the travel and tourism industry preference for a summer break that includes most of August, which is why these stakeholders prefer the current law be maintained.

“Organizations representing education interests want more school calendar flexibility and prefer that summer break ends in early August because this schedule would allow high school exams to be scheduled before winter break and also allows alignment with the community college calendar.”

The report says the disagreement between the different groups “cannot be reconciled” and adds that any decision on changing the calendar law will be perceived as favoring the interests of some “stakeholders” over others.

In the meantime, legislators around the state have filed bills calling for relaxing the requirements or making exceptions for districts. Most bills deal with individual districts and don’t make a distinction for the performance of the schools that want flexibility. For instance, House Bill 213 would exempt the Wake County school system from the calendar law.

But House Bill 53, which has a bipartisan mix of 23 sponsors, would allow all schools statewide to start on the Monday closest to Aug. 10. If the bill had been in effect this year, traditional-calendar schools would have been able to start Aug. 8 instead of Aug. 29.

It’s unclear if the bills have a shot at approval this year. Various attempts over the past decade to repeal or substantially modify the school calendar law have been rejected, including as recently as December’s special session.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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