Despite Bipartisan Griping Over NC's School Calendar, Change Seems Unlikely

Apr 12, 2017

North Carolina's school calendar law can be a nightmare for school systems to navigate. Take it from Anthony Jackson, Superintendent for Vance County Schools.

"It's very, very difficult. It's putting together a puzzle," Jackson said.

Schools have to start on the Monday nearest August 26, and end on the Friday closest to June 11. In those months they have to fit in 185 school days, nine teacher work days, several weeks of holidays, and make-up days lost to weather events.

Jackson wants Vance County schools to start in early August. He says that would reduce summer learning loss and allow him to align the calendar to the local community college, helping high school students enroll in college classes. It would also give him more options for making up snow days.

A number of schools in Vance and other school districts are able to get around the calendar law by going to year-round schools, and schools with low test scores can apply for waivers from the calendar law. But Jackson says he needs flexibility so that all Vance County schools can start in early August.

"We're not talking about a major shift, we're talking about two weeks, two to three weeks. That’s not earth-shattering," he said.

"We don't have a Research Triangle Park. We don't have large manufacturing facilities here. We've got a beach, so tourism is what we're all about."

But this fix isn't so easy, and it hasn't been since the state passed the school calendar law in 2004. The calendar law was the product of heavy lobbying by the travel and tourism industry. Communities on the coast say they need a lengthy summer vacation season to support the local economy. Frank Rush is the town manager for Emerald Isle.

"We don't have a Research Triangle Park. We don't have large manufacturing facilities here," Rush said. "We've got a beach, so tourism is what we’re all about. ... That's what we're selling, and we're trying to protect that industry."

The impacts on the tourism industry are why coastal representatives like Carteret Republican Pat McElraft are more than a little wary of giving schools more calendar flexibility. She noted state revenues from tourism have increased since the calendar law passed 12 years ago.

"How many teachers and teachers assistants does that pay for?" she said. "We need to pay for our students' education, and tourism has paid a huge portion of that."

"Our students aren't going to the beach for two weeks. Our students are sitting at home waiting for school to start."

One bill would allow schools to align their calendars with local community colleges.  Another, by Rowan  County Republican Harry Warren would allow 20 counties to start school as early as August 10th. Under that bill, the state would study the impacts of calendar flexibility before expanding it statewide.  Here he is explaining the bill in committee.

"What we really need to have are facts," Warren said during a committee meeting. "What I propose to do here in response to the demand for calendar flexibility that we have every year, is mine for actual data."

Warren says past studies have been slanted in favor of the travel and tourism industry, even though the industry has provided little hard evidence that moving the start date up has a negative financial impact. Warren also noted a recent legislative report that giving high-poverty schools control over their calendars would likely increase student achievement. Superintendent Jackson’s district in Vance County has a high percentage of low-income students.

"Our students aren't going to the beach for two weeks," Jackson said. "Our students are sitting at home waiting for school to start."

Both school calendar bills passed the House with broad bipartisan support. But school calendar bills have a history of dying in the Senate. And based on Republican Senate leader Phil Berger’s view on changes to school calendar law, these two seem likely to face a similar fate.

"The schools I believe have enough flexibility within the calendar law to take care of any issues that they have," he said. "I think it’s something that does not need to change, and I cannot support those efforts."

Berger says his opposition is based on feedback from parents who oppose the creep of the school year into a traditional summer break. A state poll of 46,000 parents and educators shows 75 percent believe school districts, not the state, should have control over their local calendars.