Moms Talk is part of a Vienna Patch initiative to reach out to moms, parents and families in Vienna.
Grab a cup of coffee and settle in as we start the conversation today with a topic in state-wide news lately: starting school before Labor Day.
Virginia law generally bars schools from opening before Labor Day. But legislation signed last week by Gov. Bob McDonnell chips away at that prohibition – an issue of intense debate during the General Assembly’s recent session.
On Wednesday, McDonnell signed into law House Bill 1483, which allows a school district to start classes before Labor Day if it is surrounded by another district that already has a waiver to begin school early.
That’s a pretty narrow exception: Republican Delegate William Cleaveland, who proposed the bill, tailored it for the city of Roanoke, which he represents.
Even so, the measure triggered heated arguments in the House (which passed the bill on votes of 72-26 and 68-22) and in the Senate (which approved the measure, 22-18).
While McDonnell’s signature settles the fate of HB 1483 – it will take effect July 1 – the issue is likely to resurface in future legislative session.
That issue is whether Virginia should continue to adhere to what some call the “Kings Dominion law” – a statute prohibiting public schools from opening before Labor Day unless they get a waiver from the Virginia Board of Education. The tourism industry, including theme parks such as Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens, strongly supports the current law, which ensures that teenagers are available to work until Labor Day.
A school division can open before Labor Day if it can show “good cause.” Under existing law, the state will give a waiver to a division that “has been closed an average of eight days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of severe weather conditions, energy shortages, power failures, or other emergency situations.”
HB 1483 adds another definition of “good cause.” It will provide a waiver if “a school division is entirely surrounded by a school division that has an opening date prior to Labor Day in the school year for which the waiver is sought. Such school division may open schools on the same opening date as the surrounding school division.”
The measure will allow schools in the Roanoke Valley, where winter brings a lot of snow, to adopt identical academic calendars.
“I wish we could do this statewide,” said Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.
In January, Fairfax County Public Schools said it was considering seeking a waiver for the 2012-2013 school year. The online survey, posted Jan. 14, asked parents if they supported schools opening prior to Labor Day. The results of that survey haven't been released.
McClellan noted that surrounding states start classes before Labor Day. As a result, students in those states “have two weeks more instruction” than Virginia students when taking college entrance exams and other standardized tests.
Sen. David Marsden, D-Burke, said it’s wrong to prohibit schools from opening before Labor Day. “What kind of message are we sending if selling cotton candy at Kings Dominion is more important than schools?”
But opponents of HB 1483 said it would hurt tourism – which in turn would hurt tax revenues earmarked for schools.
Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, cited a study conducted by the tourism industry. He said the study indicated that if schools open before Labor Day, shortening the tourism season, this would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We are beginning to lose a fair amount of revenue” as school districts get waivers to start classes before Labor Day, said Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield. He said that if waiver proponents really want to improve education, the solution is to increase Virginia’s mandatory 180-day school year to 200 days or more.
The General Assembly this session considered five other bills letting schools start before Labor Day. They all died in the House Education Committee. The bills were:
- HB 1433, by Delegate Thomas “Tag” Greason, R-Potomac Falls. It would have made “local school boards responsible for setting the school calendar and determining the opening of the school year,” eliminating the post-Labor Day requirement entirely.
- HB 1480, by Cleaveland, explicitly authorizing the Roanoke city schools to start classes two weeks before Labor Day.
- HB 1537, by Delegate Donald Merricks, R-Chatham, allowing schools in Danville, Martinsville, Henry County and Pittsylvania County to start before Labor Day.
- HB 1543, by Delegate Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, letting the Virginia Board of Education waive the post-Labor Day requirement “for any reason deemed reasonable by the Board.”
- HB 2008, by Delegate James LeMunyon, R-Chantilly, allowing “local school divisions to set the school calendar so that the first day students are required to attend must be no earlier than the fourth Monday in August.”
Eventually, the General Assembly must address this statewide issue, LeMunyon said.
“Somehow, we’ve got to find a way to find a way to support tourism and education and get out of this crazy either-or choice,” LeMunyon said.
Do you think schools in Fairfax County should begin before Labor Day? Share your thoughts in the comments below.