Ready, Set, Wait: Open Later, Say States

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The tourism industry, seeking to maximize the lucrative summer travel season, has prevailed upon at least six states to prohibit local districts from opening their schools before Sept. 1, and is campaigning in several others.

Last month, Minnesota became the latest state to adopt such a law when Gov. Rudy Perpich signed a bill that will keep schools closed until after Labor Day weekend. Earlier this year, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed a bill that will prevent schools from opening before Sept. 1. Both laws will go into effect in the 1986-87 school year.

In 1983, Arkansas and Missouri adopted laws, effective last fall, that prohibit their public schools from starting classes until after Labor Day weekend. And last year, South Dakota and Texas adopted similar opening-day measures, which will go into effect next fall. In South Dakota, the rule was approved by a statewide referendum.

Educators generally acknowledged that such laws will have little effect on instruction but view them as another sign that local control of schools is being eroded.

Max M. Miller, an education adviser to Governor Branstad of Iowa, said many educators in his state "felt that if this goes, then maybe something else will go next. They see this as another step in a trend toward more state mandates and less local control."

T.E. Davidson, executive director of the Iowa Association of School Boards, said the newly adopted law "is an absolute intrusion on matters that should be decided at the local level."

"With all the problems we have in education, you'd think they would focus on those, rather than this nit-picking," Mr. Davidson argued. "It's just one more example of the legislature looking over the school boards' shoulders and telling them what is good for them."

Commerce Over Education

Some education leaders argue that state lawmakers, by approving such laws, are succumbing to business interests over education interests.

Carol K. Schmook, spokesman for the Missouri affiliate of the National Education Association, said representatives of tourism interests in her state "pushed the bill so they could make more money during the summer and so the kids would be available to work longer in the fall."

"These are not sound reasons to make educational decisions," Ms. Schmook argued.

But Peter F. Herschend, president of the Travel Federation of Missouri Inc., a confederation of tourism-related associations that promoted the "Labor Day bill" in the legislature, contended that the law is also in the interest of public education.

"Education needs money," Mr. Herschend said. "Since tourism is a major factor in the state's economy, it helps support education." Tourism, he noted, is Missouri's second-largest industry, after manufacturing.

"If this law would have in any way damaged the capability of the system to educate, I would not have pushed it," said Mr. Herschend, who has served for six years on the Branson, Mo., board of education.

Sunset Clause

The Missouri law has a five-year sunset clause, which places the burden on the tourist industry "to prove that the law generates more tourism spending and more tax revenue for the state," according to Steve W. Kappler, spokesman for the tourism division of the state's department of economic development.

Mr. Kappler said that a preliminary survey of many of the state's tourism-related attractions and businesses, conducted by the Travel Federation to assess the impact of the law in its first year, showed a 25-percent increase in business last year during the last two weeks of August.

That growth, he said, meant a $40-million increase in gross revenues for the tourist industry and an estimated $1.6-million increase in state tax revenue.

'Goals Have Been Realized'

The survey's findings proved, Mr. Herschend said, that "the economic goals for Missouri we said would be achieved through this law have, in fact, been realized."

Mr. Herschend noted, however, that the law's impact had been blunted somewhat because some districts took advantage of an exemption permitting those defined as "agricultural in nature" to open earlier than the Labor Day weekend if local boards determined that agricultural activities would require earlier school closings in the spring.

In 1983-84, before the law went into effect, 481 of the state's 546 school districts opened before Labor Day weekend, according to Russell E. McCampbell, administrative assistant to the state commissioner of education. This school year, under the new law, 203 rural districts enrolling about 13 percent of the state's students opened before Labor Day.

At least two other states, Iowa and Arkansas, have similar waivers written into their laws.

August School Openings

While the minimum number of days schools are required to operate is generally mandated at the state level, the dates schools open and close historically have been left for local school boards to decide. Local economy, culture, and history usually influence such decisions.

According to Chris C. Pipho, spokesman for the Education Commission of the States, schools have traditionally opened during the last week of August or in early September, with schools in the "middle agricultural states" tending to open earlier than schools elsewhere.

But in recent years, according to both educators and tourism leaders, a trend toward earlier openings has developed, with many districts setting starting dates as early as mid-August.

Educators say the shift toward August school openings has occurred for a variety of reasons: extra holidays and inservice days have been added to the school calendar through collective-bargaining agreements; some school districts, like many colleges and universities, now like to complete the first semester before the winter holidays; and many teachers, in pursuit of advanced degrees, need to be free in early June to attend summer-school sessions at state colleges and universities.

"In most people's minds, Memorial Day is the beginning of summer," said Ms. Schmook of the Missouri NEA If a district wants to end a 170-to-175-day school calendar by Memorial Day, classes must begin in August, she said.

In a number of states, the majority of public schools start classes during the last two weeks of August. In Iowa, for example, a state education official estimated that 99 percent of the state's schools opened in August this year. And an official of the Minnesota Department of Education said that about 65 percent of that state's schools also opened in August.

Tourist Season Squeezed

But these early starts "limit the tourist season," said Mr. Kappler of the Missouri Department of Economic Development. In Missouri, he noted, more than 50 percent of the tourist business occurs in June, July, and August, with the highest volume in August.

The Iowa Travel Council, a group of 15 travel associations organized to promote tourism in the state, estimated that a law prohibiting school openings before Labor Day would bring $30 million in additional revenue to the state's tourist industry and $1.2 million in additional state tax revenue. The industry spent $10,000 on its successful lobbying effort in Iowa, said Craig D. Walter, vice president of the council.

In both states, the will of the public was cited by the travel industry in building its case.

In Iowa, an independent survey found that six out of 10 people supported the later starting date. And in Missouri, according to Mr. Herschend, a public-opinion poll found that 75 percent of the people in key legislative districts wanted schools to open after Labor Day.

Of all the tactics used in the tourist industry's $25,000 lobbying effort in that state, the results of this survey "made the biggest impact" on legislators, Mr. Herschend said. "In the minds of the public, summer ends on Labor Day, and people were tired of having their kids going back to school before summer was over," he said.

According to Mr. Pipho of the ECS, the tourism leader's successful lobbying efforts represent one of the first times a force "outside of the agricultural rural setting has influenced the starting dates of schools."

Job Conflicts

In South Dakota, summer vacation plans were only one of several arguments raised by a group of ranch women who collected the 14,000 signatures needed to put the issue of a later starting date on the statewide ballot.

The parents' group was concerned that August school starts took high-school students away from farm and ranch work, interfered with late-summer vacations, conflicted with the state fair, and brought children back to school during the summer heat, according to Danette E. Zickrick, spokesman for the South Dakota Department of Education. The state's tourism industry supported the change, she added.

In 1984, the legislature referred the issue to a popular vote, and in November the measure narrowly passed by a 564-vote margin.

Educational Benefits

Some school officials see educational benefits in the new laws.

Daniel B. Loritz, an assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Education, suggested that a more nearly uniform school calendar may encourage more districts to operate joint programs in such high-cost areas as vocational and special education and in low-demand subjects such as foreign languages and advanced mathematics.

Thomas E. Anderson, deputy commissioner for the Texas Education Agency, also noted that a uniform school calendar would make it easier for students to transfer from one district to another, an important consideration in light of the growing mobility of families.

Campaign Continues

Meanwhile, the proponents of delayed starting dates continue their efforts in the legislatures.

In Louisiana this month, two bills that would establish a uniform post-Labor Day starting date for the state's schools were introduced in the legislature. Several similar bills introduced by Wisconsin lawmakers died, or have been held up, in committee this year, according to state education officials there.

In both Colorado and Virginia, bills that would have prevented August school openings have been turned down by lawmakers. The Colorado bill, said a state education official, was rejected primarily because legislators feared it would interfere with school districts that are experimenting with "alternative scheduling," such as a four-day week. Education officials in Virginia said they expect tourist-industry lobbyists to try again next year.

But even in states that now prohibit schools from opening in August, some leaders of the tourist industry say they are not yet satisfied. Since many of their tourists come from neighboring states, they say they cannot fully realize the benefits of the later starting date until the other jurisdictions follow suit.

"If schools are opening early in other states," Mr. Kappler said, ''then those people who live there won't be coming to Missouri."

Vol. 04, Issue 34

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