03/06/14: Let local schools set their own calendars

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

ANOTHER SNOW day — or two, depending on where you live — and our public schools are grappling with how to make them up. Meanwhile, the Virginia Senate leaves in place the prohibition against starting schools before Labor Day.

Almost a month ago, House Bill 333, introduced by Del. Tag Greason of Loudoun County, was overwhelmingly passed by the House of Delegates. The bill would have allowed local school boards to set the school calendar and decide the opening date of the school year.

This bill would have removed the required post-Labor Day start, known as the Kings Dominion Law, the premise of which is that a shortened vacation season hurts Virginia’s economy.

But doesn’t a shortened school year also hurt the economy?

Trying to figure out how to make up the missed instructional time has school boards and parents in a tizzy. Few of the options are appealing.

Saturdays? Nope. Holidays? Nope. Tacking the days on at the end of the school year? Nope.

About the only proposal I’ve heard discussed that most seem OK with is adding a few minutes to the school day. But I have to wonder just how much learning can take place in those extra few minutes.

The better way would be to lengthen the school year, with a pre-Labor Day start, just like it used to be.

The 180-day minimum requirement hasn’t changed since I was in school way back when. Looking back through my old report cards from elementary school, I see that we always had more than 180 days of attendance. We probably had some weather-related closings during those six years but not once did we drop below 180, the lowest being 181.

No doubt it was the pressure to meet the 180-day requirement that led to Norfolk’s bungling of its closing announcement Monday.

Despite the weather forecasts and the actions of other school systems in the region, Norfolk announced, on Sunday evening, that Monday would be an early-release day. On Monday morning, Norfolk officials changed their minds. But children were already at bus stops.

Despite the overwhelming approval in the House, the Senate never voted on the bill to let school boards set their school calendars.

The bill was assigned to the Senate Health and Education Committee, which failed to include the bill on its agenda for its final meeting Feb. 27. For this session, like others before it, the bill has failed.

Lawmakers in Richmond should not be deciding when local schools should open; the reason they do is because we continue to embrace the state’s Dillon Rule, which limits the ability of local governments to make their own decisions. This “father, may I?” way of running our commonwealth may have been just fine in the 1870s but not today.

There is an option in existing law for school divisions to request a waiver to the post-Labor Day start based on “good cause.” The requirements are rather specific, yet 78 school divisions across the state have waivers for this year.

Until the legislature decides to grant localities the ability to decide this for themselves, I’d urge our school boards to pursue these waivers if at all possible.

Educating our children is as important to our economy as tourism dollars.