Opinion: K-12 Update

Benching Parents, Year-Round

Should parents be key players in year-round school assignment decisions? An ill-conceived appellate court decision this week says they shouldn’t.

On Tuesday, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that the Wake County Public School System does not need to obtain parents’ permission before moving kids to year-round schools. School officials now have carte blanche to override parental wishes if they feel it’s in the best interests of the school system. The unanimous decision from a three-judge appellate panel reverses a May 2007 ruling by Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. that blocked school leaders from mandating year-round student assignments without parental consent.

This week’s court ruling clearly marginalizes parents. It also ignores “express and clear statutory language,” according to the Locke Foundation’s legal analyst, Daren Bakst. North Carolina statute specifies that “there shall be operated in every local school administrative unit a uniform school term of nine months.” Based on the appellate court’s interpretation of the North Carolina Constitution, however, students do not have a “right to a uniform nine-month term.”

Wake County students whose families want to opt out of year-round schooling will get to attend traditional schools next year. But school board member Patti Head, quoted in yesterday’s News and Observer, cautioned this is temporary, saying, “We need to make it clear this is a one-year assignment.” In 2009-10, these students will be assigned to year-round schools. For kids new to the school system, there’s no grace period – next year, they must go wherever the school system bids them go.

Why do Wake’s school leaders remain intent on forcing students into year-round schooling? Officials say the multi-track, year-round system – in which one group of students is always on break – enables them to accommodate more pupils and respond to burgeoning enrollments. But while year-round schools may be one way to deal with student growth, they should not be foisted on parents and should instead be schools of choice.

Wake’s school system also indicates year-round schools help students retain academic material: “Another advantage of the year-round schedule is lessening the amount of learning loss that occurs after a long summer break.” According to 2007 research from Ohio State University, though, summer learning loss isn’t really the issue. This study found that while year-round students did learn more during the summer than students on a traditional schedule, year-round pupils actually learned less during the remainder of the year. In short, year-round schools provided no net achievement gains for students.

What about families? Mandatory year-round assignments disenfranchise parents. Obviously, year-round schooling works well for many of the families who choose it, but it’s not a suitable schooling arrangement for every child. Radically altering a student’s school schedule has far-reaching implications for parents – affecting child care arrangements, family vacation schedules, even transportation. And what about the logistical nightmare these assignments create for families whose children are on opposing schedules?

Unfortunately, parental priorities are all too often subordinated to system goals. Just this past February, the school board voted to move 6,464 students. At least 20 percent of the reassignments were made not because of growing enrollments, but because school leaders wanted to diversify schools economically.

Some parents have had it with constant reassignments. This winter, scores of them marched in protest. In Cary, parents suggested the town secede from Wake’s district. What will parents do now? Some will flee the system, moving to a more responsive school district. Others will shift children into private or home schools. And the legal wrangling may yet continue. The parent group Wake CARES, the plaintiff in the year-round school case, has not decided whether to appeal.

In the end, though, this week’s court ruling is a victory for the system, not the students. That is short-sighted indeed. Instead of marginalizing parents and students, we ought to empower them through school choice. In decisions affecting a child’s education, parents should never be benched – by the courts or by school boards.