For years, Virginia has mandated school start dates through the “Pre Labor Day” law (also called the “Kings Dominion” law) which was passed back in 1986. The bill originated as an attempt to save the tourism industry thousands of dollars and increase the length of their season through Labor Day. Labor Day, being the last big weekend of summer, offered the trade and tourism industry thousands of additional revenue dollars and the ability to keep those well trained high school students employed through Labor Day. What began as tourism legislation became a nuisance for public schools around the state. School officials complained and the state gave way to the “waiver” process.
The waiver process forces a school division to physically count their “snow” days over the past ten years and perform a calculation to see if the days missed meet the required average. If the average is met, the school is allowed to open prior to Labor Day. This process, although not so terribly time consuming, floods the State Department of Education with waiver upon waiver. Someone has to process each request, grant approval, contact the division, and record the data.
A law that originated to help Virginia has become a law for the few. This year in Virginia, seventy seven school divisions opened before Labor Day leaving fifty five divisions opening after Labor Day. The bill, allowing schools the option to begin school based upon their own timelines, has been attached to several other bills: teacher tenure, school calendars, and online classes for students prior to graduation. (Other bills introduced have also included changes to the diploma types awarded to students from the current 7 back to 3). So far all three bills, introduced to the Senate Committee repealing the Labor Day law, have been defeated.
With this bill “high on the education agenda” for Governor McDonnell, we may see the repeal of the Labor Day opening after all— Laura Vozzella, highlighting some of the controversy, stated “Advocates for the legislation noted that school districts would not be required to start school before Labor Day. It would simply make it possible for local school districts to do so without having to seek the waiver from the state.” ( refer to blog site www.washingtonpost.com/kingsdominionbill )
So what’s the real issue? Is this a control issue between the powers that be? Even the larger divisions such as Fairfax are reporting that 71% of their teachers would like to begin school earlier than Labor Day. Reading several reports coming from this controversy, one underlying theme has prevailed: The tourism industry takes great pride in the 1986 passing of this law. Their numbers are large and many of their lobbyists are armed to fight this battle and to win for their industry. With so many issues in education attached to so many bills, the lobby groups for education are at a disadvantage. When asked how the change will benefit the children of Virginia, many have responded that a flexible calendar will allow them to test up until the end of their calendar for Standards of Learning examinations. While I support the idea of opening prior to Labor Day (which allows a block scheduled school to complete the required 90 day semester and test prior to the winter holiday break), the SOL test window argument does not work for a year-long or spring semester. Given that the division may choose from three test windows in the spring (April through June), a division may select any one of those windows and in fact, test right up until the last day of school if they so choose.
Given the numerous variations to the school calendar just in our small region of the state, I believe that we all just want to be able to make a decision that works for our staff, our students, and our community. Having one industry regulate such a decision goes against the grain of educators…. There is no educational reason to have a tourism industry regulate the start date of an educational program for the entire state. This is however, a perfect example of how political frames work and the world of politics.