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Sununu: Send kids back to school after Labor Day

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 02. 2017 11:59PM

CONCORD - New Hampshire's youthful new governor with a young family thinks it's high time the Legislature seriously consider adopting a law that classes in public schools can't begin until after the long Labor Day weekend.

"I am strongly considering a proposal to change the dynamic of our education system in a way that works better for our families and for our economy," Gov. Chris Sununu, 42, told the New Hampshire Union Leader during a telephone interview.

But this Newfields Republican, son of a governor and brother of an ex-U.S. senator, knows all about the power of tradition and the popularity of local control when it comes to public schools.

"You don't have to infringe on local control if we have a statewide discussion and decide as a state this makes good common sense, which I believe it does," Sununu said.

"Every person I have talked to thinks this is a home run of an idea."

It's also why Sununu has been promoting the notion under the radar and, until now, in private talks with parents, educators, administrators and students.

"I am happy to lead a dialogue across the state about this," Sununu said.

The father of three said he first considered this idea three years ago while he was CEO of the Mount Washington Valley Ski Resort, a year-round tourist destination with golf, hiking, ice arena, tennis and mountain biking.

"We were seeing a drop off dramatically in business not at the end of August but by the middle of August as families were cutting back on their late summer vacations leading up to Labor Day," Sununu said.

A later start would give all parents a more fulfilling summer break with their children, the governor said.

"My kids were younger and it was really disruptive for the summer to just stop dead and then have your kids go to school for three days and then have four days off over Labor Day," Sununu said.

"When I was a child, almost no school started before Labor Day. Now almost no school starts after Labor Day. We have made a complete reversal over time and it does affect our quality of life and our economy."

There is no state law on when schools must start. There is the 180-day requirement for the school year but it's the decision of local school boards and their bargained contracts with unionized teachers that set the schedule.

Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn of Whitefield is a parent and a former teacher and thinks the current balance is the right one.

"I believe school districts should decide for themselves. My district where I went, where I taught and where my kids go starts school after Labor Day. It's part of our tradition and culture," Woodburn said.

"While few kids pick potatoes in the first week of September, many more work in tourist-related jobs and enjoy the Lancaster Fair."

Advocates maintain a delay in school starting would make sure seasonal businesses have high school employees until after the long, holiday weekend that always is one of the most profitable periods.

Other views

This topic attracted a lively debate on social media among New Hampshire residents.

Ron Pritchard is vice president of a local postal carrier union from Pembroke, and he favors going in an opposite direction.

"They should start earlier and get out earlier like the rest of the country," Pritchard said.

Steve William Lindsey is a former Democratic state legislator who lives in Keene and agrees earlier, not later, is better.

"Starting the second week of August would be part of making American students competitive with the Germans and Japanese," Lindsey said.

But count out Manchester Alderman-at-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur. The Queen City is one of the few New Hampshire cities that doesn't begin school until this week.

"Manchester starts after Labor Day; that's the way this parent likes it," Levasseur said.

And Alicia Preston, a longtime Republican campaign strategist, saw what starting earlier did to her tourist town.

"I live at Hampton Beach. When they started doing this many years ago it literally took an entire week of tourism out of only 10 all summer and the seasonal help away from small businesses," Preston said.

Not the first

Most states don't have a law about a post-Labor Day school start but Michigan adopted one 11 years ago which generated a $20 million boost in tourism, according to the Anderson Economic Group.

A record 123 school districts in that state now get waivers to start earlier, many lining up with community college schedules so their high school students can start studying toward an associate degree or certificate.

Virginia had a post-Labor Day school start law since 1986.

However, so many school districts have gotten permission to ignore it that operators of the iconic Kings Dominion amusement park for the first time this year closed down before Labor Day because more than 800,000 students in Virginia were already back in school.

The tourism industry in Maryland pursued a post-Labor Day school law for a decade without success even after Comptroller Peter Franchot started "Let Summer Be Summer" petition drive in support of it.

So last summer, Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order mandating schools not start until after this Labor Day weekend.

Nearly 70 percent in a Maryland poll supported this but it got plenty of push back from the Maryland State Education Association, the Public Schools Superintendents Association of Maryland and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

They all opposed a later start date, citing both the need for students to be at school in order to learn and worries about inclement weather.

Some research suggests starting later would lead to a longer "summer slide," in which students lose academic ground during vacation.

A much-cited study from John Hopkins University found two-thirds of the achievement gap between rich and poor ninth-graders was unequal access to summer learning.

"For kids with fewer opportunities, who aren't going to museums and traveling to foreign places. a longer summer translates into bigger learning gaps once school starts up again," said Elena Silva, the director of Pre-K-to-12 Education for New America.

Sununu said there are innovative ways to start later and not have to end later - such as adding to each day of learning.

"If we lengthen the school day by just 15 minutes a day then we get two weeks more of vacation," Sununu said.

"This all falls under what the Department of Education is looking at and that is challenging the old way of doing things. Is it time to bring the scheduling of public education into the 21st Century? I believe it is."

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