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The House K-12 education committee gave favorable approval today to a pair of bills that affect calendar flexibility for North Carolina Public Schools.

House Bill 117 creates a pilot program that allows districts in the following counties to participate in and choose their own start and stop date for the school year:

Anson County, Bladen County, Cabarrus County, Caldwell County, Catawba County, Cherokee County, Cleveland County, Davidson County, Davie County, Duplin County, Graham County, Greene County, Guilford County, Martin County, McDowell County, Mitchell County, Northampton County, Robeson County, Transylvania County, Warren County, Washington County, and Wilson County.

Current law says that students must be in school for a minimum of 185 days a year or 1,025 hours of instruction. It also says that schools can’t start earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26, and they can’t end later than the Friday closest to June 11.

Under the pilot program, schools still would not be able to choose to start earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 10 or end later than the Friday closest to June 11.

Calendar flexibility is a controversial topic that usually gets more positive attention in the House than the Senate. Almost daily, calendar flexibility bills have been filed in the General Assembly during this long session.

Proponents of calendar flexibility say that it allows schools in geographically diverse parts of the state better prepare for and make up days when school is missed due to inclement weather. It also allows them to align their calendars with community colleges, so that students can have better access to the opportunities afforded them at the institutions. Proponents also say that calendar flexibility could combat summer learning loss, which is when students lose some of the knowledge they learned during the school year over the long summer break.

Opponents say that allowing local flexibility on school calendars could negatively affect the tourism industries in areas of the state that rely on them for their economies, and some parents say it cuts into family time and has other negative consequences for families. 

“I don’t believe we have any concrete proof that calendar flexibility at the local level has any impact on tourism across the board,” said Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan. 

He suggested that the pilot study would be a good way to figure out if there are negative impacts from allowing local calendar flexibility. 

A second bill, House Bill 79, would allow districts to align their school calendars with that of community colleges, so that students can take advantage of classes at the colleges and better move from high school to the institutions. 

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said very little when presenting the bill. It is a topic that has been discussed numerous times in the House over the years. 

“I think we all understand the importance of alignment of calendars,” he said. 

Louise Lee, president of Save Our Summers, a grassroots organization that advocates for a traditional school calendar, spoke at the committee and criticized the House proposal. 

She said that there are numerous reasons why her group, and parents around the state, don’t want local districts to have calendar flexibility. On the website for the group, reasons given include school breaking into family vacation time, daycare expenses, infringing on summer jobs, and more. 

She said the only reason the law to have a state-mandated start and stop time came up in the first place was because local districts were regularly starting school early in August despite pleas by families not to do it. 

“To open this can of worms again is a huge mistake, especially when elementary and middle school parents and teachers find out about this: you don’t want to go there,” she said. 

She also referenced a 2017 Program Evaluation Division report which gave no recommendation on whether or not the General Assembly should allow local calendar flexibility, due to the fact that there was no way to rectify the competing interests of different groups. 

That 2017 report did, however, make an exception for low-performing schools and districts, saying they may benefit from calendar flexibility. 

Even if these bills gain approval in the full House, they still have to make it through the Senate, which has traditionally refused to consider such proposals. The pair of bills go to the House rules committee next.

The committee also gave favorable approval to a bill that would make an arts credit a requirement for graduation from high school in North Carolina. That credit could be received any time between sixth and 12th grade. 

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes, one of the sponsors of the bill, said that employers are increasingly finding that applicants are lacking in soft skills, like problem solving, communication, and working in teams. 

“I believe an arts education requirement would help fill that void,” he said. 

Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, said this is the fifth time she has tried to get this bill passed through the General Assembly. The House generally looks upon it favorably, but the bill never makes it out of the Senate, she said. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.