Labor Day Is Now A Battleground In The Fight Over The School Calendar

For many families, Labor Day is a welcome extension to the final weekend of summer, an excuse for a barbecue before fall sets in. But in school districts and states across the country, the day has also become a battleground between legislators, educators and the tourism industry.

On its surface, the debate seems fairly innocuous: When should kids should go back to school — before or after the holiday — and who should have the power to decide. But the pre- or post-Labor Day debate is actually a complicated, insidious struggle. It’s a conflict that stretches back to the eighties, flaring up every few years in town halls and state legislatures. Education experts argue that shorter breaks lead to better academic outcomes, particularly for poorer communities, while local school boards insist that they need dominion over their own districts. Meanwhile, the tourism industry vehemently opposes shortening summer because it eats into their profits and robs them of seasonal employees, many of them teenagers who have to return to class.

On August 31, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) brought the debate again to the forefront when he announced an executive order that, as of 2017, will require Maryland schools to remain closed until after Labor Day.

“School after Labor Day is now the law of the land in Maryland,” said Hogan. He argued that the mandate was a “long overdue” measure to “protect the traditional end of summer.”

Hogan, who has a historically terrible relationship with teachers and schools in his state, argued that pushing back the start of school allows for more family time, will reduce the strain of air-conditioning classrooms in the torpid August heat, and will not negatively impact students’ education.

Underlying Hogan’s arguments, however, was a strong current of economics. Hogan announced the new measure in Ocean City, a popular summer tourist destination whose businesses stand to benefit enormously from a later school date.

He was flanked by the state’s comptroller, Peter Franchot, who oversees the state’s finances, and who in 2014 put together a task-force to argue for pushing back the first day of school. Two years ago, Franchot said that a shift would mean millions in tax revenue and economic activity. At the time, his recommendations were strongly opposed by the three main educational organizations in Maryland, who said that the recommendation to start school post-Labor Day appeared to be “based on purely economic reasons.”

Now, it’s the ‘law of the land’ — and state lawmakers and educators are outraged and worried about the effect it will have on the state’s education.

“Many of us are trying to think about ‘how do we give our kids more time in school?’” Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance told the Baltimore Sun, saying that the move is in direct contradiction to the prevailing advice of education experts. Sean Johnson, a lobbyist for the state teacher’s union, told the Sun that it “codified the brain drain” that occurs for students during summer vacation.

Michael Durso, president of the school board for Maryland’s largest school district, said Hogan’s unilateral mandate “[usurped] local decision-making around school calendars.” State senator Rich Maladeno echoed Durso in a fiery Facebook post, writing that “Hogan’s actions today seizes control from local elected officials and gives it to a group of bureaucrats in Annapolis.”

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. went to the heart of the issue — accusing Hogan of prioritizing summer tourism over advancing educational achievements.

“Making a press show about this issue . . . while holding hands with the state tax collector appears like political gamesmanship,” Miller said, as reported by The Washington Post.

The Education vs. Economy Showdown Across the US

The fight to prioritize business interests over education is hardly confined to Maryland. Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia all already have laws on the books prohibiting earlier school start-dates. In each case, the tentacles of the tourism industry are never far away.

In Virginia, the law is known as the “King’s Dominion Law,” after the theme park — together with Busch Gardens before it was sold by the beer giant — donated over a million dollars to state legislators since the law went on the books 20 years ago, ensuring that schools go into session after Labor Day. Long summer vacations mean more time for family trips and more money for the tourism industry, as well as cheap summer labor from high schoolers.

Michigan has required schools to start after Labor Day since 2006, but more and more schools are requesting waivers to allow students to get back to their classrooms earlier. Reacting to the trend, State Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R) introduced a bill to repeal the requirement, arguing that the long summer break was counterintuitive if scholastic achievement was the goal. The bill was met with fierce opposition from the state’s tourism industry.

And the Labor Day school mandate could continue to spread. Bills and debates about tourism vs. education have recently cropped up in Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, and Texas. This year, lawmakers in Ohio introduced a bill that would require state schools to start after Labor Day; its sponsors argued that it would lesson costs from air conditioning and allow kids to spend more time at summer jobs, thus boosting the economy.

In June, the Delaware Senate narrowly passed a bill (which died in the House) that would also require schools to start after Labor Day. The task force that recommended the bill said it would allow kids to stay at summer jobs longer and extend the tourist season. In April, a Rhode Island senator also introduced a Labor Day bill, pointing to Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia and saying that the late start date in each state was “applauded” by the tourism industry.

The problem with starting school later

Pushing back schools’ start dates is in direct contradiction to prevailing educational wisdom. Researchers have been making data-driven pleas for years to shorten the United States’ long summer breaks, which are unique among industrialized countries — as are our persistently low reading and math scores.

Arne Duncan, who was the United States Secretary of Education from 2009 until earlier this year, argued that a longer school year was essential to helping American kids remain competitive on a national stage. President Obama has also made it clear that he’s in favor of a longer school year, saying in 2009 that while he knows the idea isn’t “wildly popular,” that the “challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom.” Kids in other countries, both Duncan and Obama stressed, were often at school for a month longer than US kids — gains which add up.

Research also shows that schools with longer school years and more classroom time report higher graduation rates and higher test scores. Long summers lead to “brain drain” and “summer slide” — the loss of hard-earned reading and math skills over the long break. Karl Alexander, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, found that students lose an average of two months worth of what they learned the previous year over every summer.

These losses particularly effect lower income students, who are already at a disadvantage.

Unlike their wealthier peers, they can’t afford to spend their summers at enrichment activities or expensive camps. The gap in summer opportunities only widens existing educational inequalities. According to a research review by the National Summer Learning Association, by the end of fifth grade, summer learning loss can put low-income students two-and-a-half to three years behind their peers.

And while summer might mean fun family vacations for wealthier students, for low income students summer break often means the loss of the subsidized meals they can depend on during the year.

“A lot of our students don’t have access to vacations in Ocean City.”

In Maryland, educators have cited this as a huge problem with Hogan’s unilateral decision: the needs of wealthy Washington D.C. suburbs are hugely different than the needs of Baltimore, where 84 percent of public school students qualify for subsidized meals.

“A lot of our students don’t have access to vacations in Ocean City,” Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff of the Baltimore school system told the Baltimore Sun.

Longer summer breaks also place a burden on parents. Proponents of later school start dates, aside from the hard economics arguments, often appeal to a romantic notion of summer as essential family time. But for single or low-income parents who might rely on working multiple low-wage jobs, summer instead means either scraping together the money for child-care costs or leaving kids unattended.

When it comes to longer summer breaks, the tourism industry may reap the rewards, but it’s poorer communities that bear the brunt of the costs.

Then there’s the sheer math factor: most states mandate at least 180 days of education. Lengthening summer break often means scrimping on the other vacations throughout the year. In Maryland, Hogan’s order now requires schools to squeeze those 180 days in between Labor Day and June 15th, which, when combined with the need for flexibility in the case of bad weather, educators say might mean shrinking spring break. It also will mean less flexibility with religious holidays.

“One of the biggest impacts of Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to insert the state in formulating local public school calendars will be on religious minorities,” State Senator Rich Madaleno wrote on Facebook, noting that while Christian holidays are state-mandated time off, some school districts in Maryland had recently added the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as days off— for which they would now need to annually petition the State School board.

The high cost of a long summer

Advocates of shorter school years often cite the costs that are associated with a longer school year. More time in school means paying teachers more, and larger administrative costs. One of the arguments advanced by Hogan — and by other advocates for later school start dates in Arizona and Ohio — was the cost associated with operating air conditioners in the August heat (which, before air conditioners were invented, was actually the reason for the summer break in the first place, not the need of children’s labor on family farms).

Not allocating the money, however, only pushes those costs back onto parents for summer enrichment activities and childcare. It also puts a large number of America’s underserved kids at a systematic disadvantage, passing inequalities from generation to generation.

And, given that education is how we feed workers into the American economy and fuel innovation, many of the economic arguments for a shorter school year come across as short-sighted. Longer summers may indeed boost tourism in the short term — but is that boost worth what it’s going to cost the future?

This article originally stated that Montgomery County was the second-largest county in Maryland and that schools would be required to finish by July 15th; Montgomery County is the largest county and Maryland schools are required to finish by June 15th. We regret the errors.