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NC House decides on school calendar flexibility

Two bills for calendar flexibility for local school districts have passed the state House. Both bills passed on second reading last week, but the third reading on one — House Bill 375 — was delayed until today. 

House Bill 375 would allow school districts to align their calendars with those of nearby community colleges. The synchronization is one reason many districts prefer flexibility. Under the legislation, a school would not be able to open earlier than August 15. Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, the bill’s primary sponsor, said the provision is meant to appease some tourism businesses which have historically backed traditional school calendars. 

House Bill 389, backed by Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, passed both second and third reading last week; it would create a 20-county study to assess the impact of calendar flexibility in different parts of the state.

Given the number of bills filed to give specific districts control over when they start and end the school year, the legislation aims to give the state data on how calendar flexibility would affect student achievement and opportunities for summer internships. 

In the House Committee on Commerce and Job Development last Wednesday, Warren said he understands that some counties’ local economies would be damaged my moving start and end dates and shortening summer breaks. Areas along the coast and in the mountains are excluded from the study, Warren said. He said he wants to choose counties where it is not clear whether negative economic effects outweigh the positive educational effects.

“We all recognize … that North Carolina is blessed with a lot of diversity— economically, geographically — and one policy on school start and end dates doesn’t necessarily fit every community,” Warren said. 

The legislation would allow schools to start as early as August 10. The following counties were chosen based on student poverty levels, counties’ poverty tier designations, and the number of low-performing schools in the county, among other measures: Anson, Bladen, Cabarrus, Caldwell, Cherokee, Cleveland, Davidson, Duplin, Graham, Greene, Guilford, Martin, McDowell, Mitchell, Northampton, Robeson, Rowan, Warren, Washington, and Wilson. 

Any county could opt-out or opt-in, Warren said. If a county chooses to not be included in the study, the State Board of Education would have to choose a demographically-similar county to replace it. 

By law, the Department of Public Instruction is responsible for measuring educational outcomes in the counties, and the Department of Commerce would measure the impacts on the tourism industry. The law would require both departments to present annual reports to UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government.

Rep. Amos Quick, D-Guilford, said he is glad his county will be included in the study.

“One of the things I know that this calendar flexibility will allow for is for the educational needs of our low-income and low-performing students, because ultimately what those students need is not less education but more education,” Quick said. “These additional weeks will provide for that.”

Some representatives were concerned about the makeup of the counties selected. Rep. Phil Shepard, R-Onslow, said he doubts the study would produce reliable data since the areas with the most tourism, like his own, are left out. Rep. Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg, said she noticed a lack of urban counties in the list. 

Multiple bipartisan organizations have formed a coalition called L.O.C.A.L. to advocate for calendar flexibility. Terry Stoops, vice president for research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, spoke representing the coalition at the commerce committee. 

Stoops noted a Program Evaluation Division report released in February that he said could not independently verify that school calendar hurts businesses’ revenues. Stoops also referenced a study finding that families simply move their vacations to work around the school calendar instead of not vacationing at all.  

“That’s really the point here, is that vacationing families don’t forego spending based on school calendar, they simply spend their money in different ways and at different times,” Stoops said.

Louise Lee, the president of Save Our Summers North Carolina, said the group first came to the General Assembly in 2003 when families’ voices were not being considered in school calendar decisions.

“Local school boards were totally ignoring the pleas of teachers, and parents, and other concerned citizens to stop starting school in early to mid-August,” Lee said.

The organization’s website lists reasons for traditional calendars like more family time, out-of-classroom educational opportunities, summer jobs for students, and less daycare expenses. Lee said there would be significant pushback if this kind of legislation passes.

“If these things happen, you’re going to have a huge uprising of elementary parents and other citizens,” she said. 

The measures now move to the Senate. 

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.