School divisions in Virginia make all kinds of decisions to promote the education of our children. They select learning materials, hire teachers, and they decide what time the school day will start and end. What they can’t do, however, is set the dates of their own school year.
School calendars are determined by concerns that have nothing to do with educational needs. Rather, since 1986 the so-called “Kings Dominion Law”—nicknamed because of its backing by the powerful amusement-park lobby—has mandated that public schools in Virginia can’t open until after Labor Day weekend.
So what’s the big deal, you might ask. All Virginia public schools have to provide 180 days of instruction each year. Does it really make a difference whether they start earlier or later? I’ll cut to the chase: YES, it does—particularly for Hampton Roads divisions (more details below). And now there is a real chance of enacting this important change in the General Assembly.
With a clear, bipartisan majority, the House of Delegates has just passed two bills (HB 372 and HB 1020) that would make local school boards responsible for setting their own school calendars and determining the opening day of each school year. A similar bill (SB 914) didn’t make it to the floor of the Senate because the Education and Health Committee indefinitely passed it by, 8-7. Unfortunately, it was Hampton Roads’ own Senator Lynwood Lewis (Democrat, District 6) who cast the deciding vote. Now the House bills are headed back to the Senate Education and Health Committee, to be discussed this Thursday—and Senator Lewis will again decide whether or not the bills move forward.
Parents, educators, and all other supporters of public education—this is a brief, important, easy opportunity to stand up for a simple change that will positively affect our public schools. If you live in Accomack, Mathews, or Northampton County, or in parts of Norfolk (most of the north side, plus Larchmont, Park Place, Ghent, and downtown) or Virginia Beach (near the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek), please take 5 minutes before this Thursday to call or email Senator Lewis and ask him to SUPPORT HB 372 or HB 1020.
Sen. Lynwood W. Lewis., Jr. (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Session office phone: 804 698-7506)
If you’re ready to take this important action step, go for it! You’ll be backing a longstanding legislative priority of the Virginia PTA and numerous other education advocacy groups. You can stop reading here.
But if you’d like to know more about why this issue is so important, please read on:
Virginia’s current school calendar law discriminates against students in southeastern Virginia
One of the first things to know about Virginia’s current school calendar law is that the majority of school divisions don’t have to follow it. Take a brief glance at this map from the Virginia Department of Education, and you’ll see that a clear majority of localities—essentially the entire western and northern parts of the state—have obtained waivers to start before Labor Day.
Most of these waivers are “weather-related.” Divisions can apply for these if they have had to close an average of eight to ten days per year during any five of the last ten years because of poor weather. Nearly every division that can obtain one of these waivers has. Sixty-four percent of Virginia public schools opened before Labor Day in 2017, with start dates that ranged from August 3 to August 28.
The only public schools in Virginia that actually opened after Labor Day are clustered towards the southeast, where there are (usually) fewer snow days— and, of course, where attractions like Kings Dominion, Busch Gardens, and the Virginia Beach oceanfront have an interest in keeping the tourist season alive as late in the year as possible.
An earlier start date is in students’ best interest
So why do so many school divisions choose to open earlier? All schools in the Commonwealth must have 180 teaching days each year, but when those 180 days occur turns out to be very important. Standards of Learning (SOL) assessments take place all across the state in the same window each spring. (This year, the window falls between April 9 and June 22.) Schools that start earlier have more time to prepare—and they have fewer post-SOL testing days in early and mid-June, when academics tend to give way to class celebrations, movies, and other end-of the-year fun. Simply put, schools that start earlier in August gain up to a month more meaningful instructional time to help their students meet the expected standards of learning and achievement. These schools may also end their fall semesters before winter break, instead of disrupting the flow of learning with a two-week pause just as students are preparing for exams. Colleges and universities arrange their semesters this way because it makes sense. Advanced high school students would have a much easier time participating in dual enrollment opportunities at institutions like Tidewater Community College if the institutions’ calendars aligned.
Struggling school divisions are disproportionately affected by the school calendar restrictions
Southeastern Virginia is home to some terrific tourist attractions. The region is also a key part of the state’s “urban crescent,” and it hosts a disproportionate number of the state’s struggling school divisions. There are currently 1,823 public schools in Virginia, and the overwhelming majority are thriving. Only 88 of these schools were denied accreditation in 2017-18 because of persistently low student achievement—but 63 of the 88 are among the minority of divisions that are not allowed to begin instruction before Labor Day. Hampton Roads is home to 26 these schools, and two (Metompkin Elementary School in Accomack County, and Blair Middle School in Norfolk) are even located in Senator Lewis’s district. Most of these schools received Title I funding to provide additional support for economically disadvantaged students, and several have been designated as Priority or Focus Schools by the Virginia Department of Education.
There is no silver bullet for improving school performance, which clearly depends on a whole host of factors—but surely allowing school boards to maximize instructional time and arrange their calendars in a way that best meets the needs of their students is a step in the right direction.
What about the economy?
The justifications for delaying the start of school until after Labor Day are economic, not educational. Businesses that make money through tourism have an interest in extending the summer tourist season as long as possible. But I’ve yet to see a study that has examined the broader economic impact of allowing a few dozen southeastern Virginia school divisions the freedom to set their own calendars. Considering that the majority of public schools, universities, and private schools in Virginia already start before Labor Day (not to mention all of the early starters in neighboring states), the overall economic impact may well be smaller than many people assume.
For one thing, localities like Virginia Beach could decide to keep their calendars as is. The proposed legislation doesn’t compel any division to start before Labor Day; it just gives school boards a choice. And HB 372 even includes a provision that schools must close for additional days around Labor Day, thus preserving the long holiday weekend.
Virginia is one of only 14 U.S. states that have a school calendar law, and most of these laws are less restrictive than ours. Three decades of the Kings Dominion law is enough. Please ask Senator Lewis to support local control over our children’s school calendars.