State Politics

Let schools start earlier in August, NC House says

From left, Dylan Solano 6, watches as Elise Horn, 6, pushes the car, which is starting off the track, with Lindsey Plunkett and Aldo Salado standing by at Coltrane-Webb STEM Elementary School in 2015. Cabarrus County is among 20 counties that would be allowed to start school as early as Aug. 10 under a bill approved by the state House on Thursday, April 6, 2017.
From left, Dylan Solano 6, watches as Elise Horn, 6, pushes the car, which is starting off the track, with Lindsey Plunkett and Aldo Salado standing by at Coltrane-Webb STEM Elementary School in 2015. Cabarrus County is among 20 counties that would be allowed to start school as early as Aug. 10 under a bill approved by the state House on Thursday, April 6, 2017. Marty Price

Over opposition from the tourism industry, the state House gave overwhelming approval this week to a pair of bills that would give some or all North Carolina school systems the ability to start classes earlier in August.

But the fate of the measures remains uncertain in the N.C. Senate. Over the past several years, the Senate has been unwilling to take up any adjustment to the state’s school calendar law.

“I’m not sure anything has changed as far as how we feel about them,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, said Thursday. He predicted that either school-calendar bill would have trouble getting traction in his chamber.

The House voted 104-6 on Thursday in favor of letting 20 primarily high-poverty counties start the school year as early as the Monday closest to Aug. 10. House Bill 389 goes to the Senate, where opposition to the bill is expected to be greater.

The House also voted 100-8 to give initial approval to proposed legislation that would let any school district start classes as early as Aug. 15 to align with the calendar of its local community college. The House is scheduled to take another vote Monday before sending House Bill 375 to the Senate.

“This is not a commerce issue,” said Rep. Kevin Corbin, a Macon County Republican. “It’s not a travel and tourism issue, not a vacation rental issue. It’s an education issue.”

The votes came after heated debate, with supporters saying school districts and not the state should determine the first day of classes. Opponents argued that the legislation would have a devastating effect on the tourism industry and the state’s economy.

“It’s just a backdoor way of moving the school calendar into August and taking away, I calculated the other day, about $5 billion over 10 years in the tourism industry,” said Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican.

School calendar bills have long been the focus of raucous legislative battles at the General Assembly. In the years following 2000, many school districts had moved start dates into early August, prompting outcry from parents groups and the tourism industry. In 2004, the General Assembly passed the basics of the current school calendar law, although it has been amended several times.

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. Charter schools and year-round schools are exempt from the law.

School districts have been trying to modify or repeal the school calendar law since it passed in 2004. School officials cite problems with a late August start including high school students taking their final exams after they return from winter break.

Some legislators argued that academic performance would go up if high school students took the final exams in December. They also said that the earlier start date would help with mountain counties that have lots of snow days.

“We’ve got to remember that the education of our kids is pretty important too,” said Rep. Jonathan Jordan, an Ashe County Republican. “We’ve got to balance interests. That’s what we do in the General Assembly.”

But Rep. Pat McElraft, a Carteret County Republican, said families want to have most of August off to be able to take advantage of lower prices for vacation rentals. She also said that taking two more weeks away from the vacation season would hurt teachers and students who work summer jobs and take away state revenue that helps fund education.

“We need to pay for our students’ education, and tourism has paid a huge portion of that,” McElraft said.

Rep. Larry Pittman, a Cabarrus County Republican who voted against both bills, argued in favor of giving more time for families to spend together in the summer.

“I know a lot of people think that school is the best place for a child to be,” he said. “It’s a good place for them to be, within reason. But with their family is a great place to be too.”

But Rep. Amos Quick, a Guilford County Democrat, argued that legislators should leave it up to school districts to decide what calendar works best for students.

“We’ve had great vacations,” he said. “But the proudest I’ve been of my daughters is 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 seashells.”

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

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