Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — House Bill 175 would return control over school calendars to local boards of education. The legislation could mean a showdown between educators who disapprove of a one-size-fits-all approach for all 115 of the state's public school districts and business interests that pushed for a mandated statewide school calendar on the premise that it creates additional revenue from tourism.
H.B. 175 passed the first reading in the state House and was referred to the Committee on Education Feb. 25.
Under current law, passed in 2004, local school districts are barred from starting the school year before Aug. 25 and ending it after June 10. Former Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, D-Dare, who represented eight coastal counties in the state Senate until his resignation in January, pushed for the law on the premise that it would boost tourism.
Forty states and the District of Columbia provide local control over school calendars either by allowing the school district to set the start date or putting it to a vote of the school board or citizens, says Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. In 11 states, guidelines for setting the start date are set by state law. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia allow local education agencies to determine when school ends; Arkansas, North Carolina, and West Virginia are the only states allowing no local control over the school calendar, Stoops adds.
"The [November] election was about several things," says House Speaker Pro Tem Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth, one of the primary sponsors of the bill. "One thing was the people's desire to have us push the power away from our title, away from our office, and away from the capitol. "
Educators have criticized the current law on several fronts. For instance, they say, by eliminating five of 20 teacher workdays, it has diminished opportunities for staff development. The proposed legislation would restore those workdays.
"We strongly support the bill," said Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the N.C. State School Boards Association. "The current law has not been positive for us to provide educational opportunities for our children."
The NCSBA contends the current law came about as a result of intense pressure from tourism groups and a parent-led coalition called Save Our Summers. The law created a procedure allowing districts to apply for waivers from the mandated start and end dates, but "the requirements were quite burdensome and ineffectual," the NCSBA website says.
Critics also say the current law has thrown the calendar for high schools, community colleges, and universities out of alignment by two weeks, preventing many high school students from participating in upper-level courses at partner colleges and universities.
And they argue the law has decreased the amount of instructional time students receive before testing. Winner says students in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs receive two weeks' less instructional time prior to testing.
Folwell says modifications in the testing schedule for high school seniors have proved detrimental since the 2004 passage of the current law. "It has prevented our high school students from completing midterm exams before Christmas,” he said. “The biggest number of high school students apply for college in October and receive a reply by Feb. 1." That’s the time most universities send out acceptance letters to graduating seniors. Instead, some 50 percent of N.C. high school students wrap up their midterm exams on Feb. 1, putting them at a competitive disadvantage with students from other states.
"If the exams are after Christmas, kids never get a break," Winner adds.
Save Our Summers says the current law lets families spend more time together. Students also can work or participate in extracurricular activities, including summer camps.
The state’s calendar law requires that all public school students attend school a minimum of 180 days and 1,000 hours of instructional time. Students must also complete two 90-day instructional periods prior to testing.
"It really comes down to the impact the current law has had on school systems' ability to manage two uncontrollable things — weather and the number of holidays in January," says Folwell. The current law limits the number of days that can be scheduled as inclement weather days, increasing the likelihood that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, spring break, and Saturdays must be used as make-up days.
Similar bills aimed at restoring control to local school boards have passed the state House in previous sessions but never made it through the Senate. "Every session since 2004 has seen the passage in the House of at least one of these bills," says Kathy Hartkopf, legislative liaison for North Carolina FreedomWorks, which has lobbied on behalf of HB 175.
"The 2004 calendar law represents an egregious violation for local control," Hartkopf says. "It is elected school board members, not the state legislature, who should set the school calendar for the students in their counties."
Rep. Bill Faison, D-Caswell, says both boards of education in his district have asked for legislation that would return control over school calendars to local educators. Last session, he supported a similar bill that ultimately died in the Senate and is a co-sponsor of H.B. 175.
"Marc Basnight pushed this through,” Faison said. “Now Marc Basnight is no longer there. Even if he were there, I don't think he would have the votes to stop it."
Kristy Bailey is a contributor to Carolina Journal.