State Politics

NC lawmakers consider letting schools start earlier in August

From left, James Alexander, 9, Sai Bandaru, 8, and Brandon Pimentel, 10, work on their track design in Christine Archambault’s fourth grade class at Coltrane-Webb STEM Elementary School in Concord, N.C. in 2015. Cabarrus County is among 20 counties that would be allowed to start school as early as Aug. 10 under a bill backed Tuesday, March 28, 2017, by the House Education Committee.
From left, James Alexander, 9, Sai Bandaru, 8, and Brandon Pimentel, 10, work on their track design in Christine Archambault’s fourth grade class at Coltrane-Webb STEM Elementary School in Concord, N.C. in 2015. Cabarrus County is among 20 counties that would be allowed to start school as early as Aug. 10 under a bill backed Tuesday, March 28, 2017, by the House Education Committee. Marty Price

A state House committee on Tuesday backed a pair of bills that would let North Carolina school districts start earlier in August, but the proposed legislation faces opposition from the tourism industry.

The House Education Committee passed House Bill 375 that would let any school district start classes as soon as Aug. 15 to align with the calendar of its local community college. The committee also backed House Bill 389 that would let 20 primarily high-poverty counties start the school year as early as the Monday closest to Aug. 10.

Supporters of school-calendar flexibility said it should be school districts that determine the first day of classes.

“Calendar flexibility is an education issue, not a tourism issue,” said Rep. Kevin Corbin, a Macon County Republican.

But some legislators said letting schools start earlier in August could have devastating financial consequences on the tourism industry.

“I hope we’ll think long and hard before we put (20) counties, much less 69 counties or 100 counties into a program like this,” said Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican. “

Under 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. Charter schools and year-round schools are exempted from the law.

School districts have been trying to modify or repeal the school calendar law since it passed in 2004. School officials cite issues such as how the late August start means high school students don’t take their final exams until after they return from winter break.

In February, the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division recommended allowing low-performing schools and low-performing school districts to have more flexibility in setting their calendars as a way of raising student achievement.

Rep. Harry Warren, a primary sponsor of HB 389, said at least 52 bills have been filed in the House and Senate this year to give school calendar flexibility to 69 of the state’s 100 counties.

Warren’s bill would create a pilot project allowing school districts in 20 counties to start classes earlier in the 2018-19 school year. Counties that would be able to participate include Cabarrus, Guilford, Northampton, Rowan, Warren and Wilson.

“The purpose behind the bill is to show that one size does not fit all,” said Warren, a Rowan County Republican. “We do have areas that can support calendar flexibility.”

The bill would also have the state Department of Commerce study the impact of the pilot program on the tourism industry. Warren said that this new study would give “hard data to make decisions on” because past studies have been slanted toward the tourism industry.

But Iler said losing two weeks of vacation rentals could dwarf the financial consequences attributed to House Bill 2, the law limiting LGBT protections. The Associated Press estimates that HB2 will cost the state more than $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years.

HB 375 revives, with some slight modifications, a proposal that was backed by the House Education Committee last year. The bill died in the House Rules Committee.

Even if the bills pass the full House, Rep. Phil Shepard, an Onslow County Republican, says the senators he’s talked to have told him that school calendar bills won’t go anywhere in the Senate.

But Warren said the Senate is populated with “a lot of deep-thinking people” who will give due consideration to school calendar legislation.

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

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