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Economic issues on both sides of Sununu plan to delay school year until after Labor Day

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 03. 2018 12:48AM
A fleet of buses rolls out Tuesday, Aug. 28, the first day of school at Bedford High School for the 2018-19 school year. Gov. Chris Sununu's “Save our Summers” initiative is aimed at preventing school districts from starting the school year before Labor Day. (DAVE LANE/UNION LEADER)

When the Merrimack School District tallied the results of its annual parent survey earlier this year, the record number of respondents were clear about their desires on one issue: 88 percent said they didn't want their children to return to school before Labor Day.

As a result, Merrimack students won't be taking their seats until Tuesday.

It's the kind of anecdote, and majority, that Gov. Chris Sununu likely had in mind when he signed an executive order last week creating the Save Our Summers Study Commission, which will report back later this year with proposed legislation that could prohibit New Hampshire school districts from starting before Labor Day.

The proposal has quickly drawn questions from proponents of local control, even in districts like Merrimack where the school calendar might be unaffected by the change.

During Marge Chiafery's 18 years as Merrimack superintendent, the district has started school in August eight times and in September 10 times. Each year, the decision is driven by parents' desires, and that's the way Chiafery and Shannon Barnes, chair of the Merrimack School Board and president of the New Hampshire School Board Association, want to keep it.

"A school calendar, it's very up close and personal," Chiafery said. "The community really likes to speak, and the minute you get away from the community and have someone else (decide) it can be difficult."

Sununu, who was CEO of a ski resort before becoming governor, signed his executive order at Canobie Lake Park and argued that mandating a later start date would benefit students by extending their summer vacations and help the state by bolstering its tourism industry with another long weekend.

"New Hampshire has an obligation to evaluate whether starting school after Labor Day would have a positive impact on academic performance due to an enhancement of other recreational and educational opportunities that exist outside the formal school environment," the governor said.

Similar arguments have been made in other states that start school after Labor Day.

In 2012, the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, an industry group, estimated it would cost businesses there $369 million if the state repealed its law prohibiting pre-Labor Day starts. The law is still in place.

In 2013, Maryland's comptroller estimated delaying start dates until after the long weekend would bring in $74.3 million in economic activity. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ultimately signed an executive order in 2016, over the objection of school districts and the state legislature, mandating an after-Labor Day start.

And an economic study in Michigan concluded that in 2007, the year its start day law took effect, the change was directly responsible for a $20 million increase in tourism spending.

But in all three of those states, the statewide mandates have become significantly less statewide than the laws would suggest.

Since 2014, Michigan has granted 487 waivers to school districts that want to start school before Labor Day (there are 903 districts in Michigan and waivers last for three years, so some districts may have received more than one).

"The Department of Education's general feeling is that the more time spent in school the better," said William DiSessa, a spokesman for the agency. "That said, there are opponents to starting school before labor day and in Michigan that's mostly folks in the tourism industry."

In Virginia, more than a third of its school districts have received waivers for August starts this year. And in Maryland, after the governor's initial executive order, so many districts requested waivers that Hogan tightened the restrictions. Even so, two of Maryland's 24 districts have received the waivers.

While the rules vary slightly, schools in those states can apply for waivers only if they meet certain conditions, such as a certain number of days missed in previous years due to weather or a certain rate of underperforming students.

The details of Sununu's proposal, if there will be legislation, haven't yet been fleshed out. And while the idea in concept may not have the guaranteed support of several key legislators, they are at least open to the idea and interested in the study commission's findings.

"Education is extremely important, and I think it's more important that we deliver a quality education than worry about a particular start date," said Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, a member of the House Freedom Caucus. "That being said, I think a later start date after Labor Day is beneficial to a number of our industries, including tourism."

Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, who chairs the Senate Education Committee said he has no opinion on the issue yet and would like to hear the testimony to the study commission. His counterpart on the House Education Committee, Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, said he hasn't made up his mind either but he'd want to know how the mandate would affect districts that cross state lines and whether the change would lead to students staying in school into July or losing other vacation time during the year.

"If you're going to start later, I don't want to see the kids getting out any later than they are right now," Ladd said. "When you get out in June, as it is, kids are really ready for vacation to begin with so there's really not that much productivity."

Districts must be open for 180 educational days during the year, or an equivalent number of hours spread out over fewer days. In recent years, punishing winter storms have strained districts' abilities to meet those marks within their intended calendars.

A Union Leader analysis of 2016-2017 test scores compared to districts' respective start dates showed that high school students who started later had marginally better SAT math scores. Smarter Balanced math scores were relatively consistent across start dates.

SAT scores tended to be better the fewer days students attended school during the year, whereas Smarter Balanced scores, which also measure students in elementary and middle school, were the opposite.

But those comparisons don't take into account a long list of other variables that factor into the quality of education, such as each district's cost per pupil or the relative income of families.

In Manchester - which starts school Wednesday, has one of the shortest school years in the state, and also tests lower than most other districts - Superintendent Bolgen Vargas would like to see school start earlier and include more educational days.

Many families in the city would benefit from having their children return to school early because they can't afford to take off work or afford the child care, which does students no good, he said. The district is seeking to expand its summer programming in general.

"The issue for me is not should you start before or after Labor Day," Vargas said. "The issue is can we design the school calendar as a local district that takes into consideration our students' needs."

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