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State superintendent candidates talk about school calendar control, schools reopening

In a survey, EducationNC asked teachers what questions they had for the two candidates for state superintendent of public instruction. We winnowed the responses down and added a few of our own. We have been asking the two candidates for state superintendent one question a week and publishing their responses. Here is the latest.

This week’s question was asked with the caveat that we knew Gov. Roy Cooper was going to be making his announcement about schools reopening in the fall. We told the candidates that, if they wanted, they could answer the question within the context of whatever Gov. Cooper decided. The actual question was:

Q: Should school calendar control be in the hands of local districts? Why or why not? 

Republican candidate Catherine Truitt

North Carolina has 115 school districts and 180 public charter schools spread across eight geographically diverse regions. Anyone who has traveled our state understands that these districts have varying needs, different and unique challenges, and widely varying resources. 

That’s why broad, one-size-fits all solutions for our public schools are hard to make work statewide and rarely, if ever, work for every school and system in the state. It’s why I am a vocal proponent of giving local superintendents and school boards the power to determine how their schools should reopen this fall, and why, in general, I am a big proponent for increasing local control and input in public education. 

Our state-mandated school calendar is a prime example of a one-size-fits-all approach that is not efficient, effective, or student-centered. It’s also a great example of where local control could be easily and quickly implemented. 

By way of background, the school calendar sits in statute in North Carolina. It mandates — among other things — that schools must start the Monday closest to August 25 and must end the Friday closest to June 11, and that schools must be in session for 185 days or 1,025 hours except for schools deemed year-round schools.  

Due to this calendar mandate, winter break ends up falling right in the middle of the second semester. Instead of taking exams at a time when the information is fresh in students’ heads and they are in “school mode,” students are taking exams in mid-January fresh off a two-plus week break from school. For some, if not most students, this has a negative effect on their performance on these exams. It also means that school systems, especially in the western part of the state who routinely miss a number of days due to inclement weather, have to obtain a waiver from the state to be able to build a calendar around those anticipated closures. And those are only two of the headaches caused in a “normal” school year by this unnecessary mandate.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the required school start date for all North Carolina public school systems has been changed to August 17 for this year only. This calendar mandate is a much bigger headache than usual. School systems in areas that are facing a surge in COVID-19 cases don’t have the ability to push back the start of school in hopes that the number of new positive COVID-19 cases will decrease in their county. Nor do schools struggling to comply with Gov. Cooper’s plan B for reopening have the flexibility to delay the start of school by even a week to give them more time to ensure proper safety protocols are in place and to beef up their distance learning programs and capabilities. Just being able to adjust the start date of school by a week could have made a huge difference for some of our schools.

The lack of local control over school calendars has long been a challenge for North Carolina’s public school systems. This year it could be a nightmare. If we can’t trust local schools with setting their own calendars based on what is best for their community, their teachers and staff, and their students, then what can we trust our local school systems to do?

Democratic candidate Jen Mangrum

In North Carolina, we have duplicate systems of public education. We have public charter schools and traditional public schools. Ninety-two percent of the 1.6 million students in North Carolina are served by traditional public schools yet these schools are sometimes regulated and handcuffed by the General Assembly leadership while charter schools have little to no oversight. Public charter schools do not have to provide lunch or transportation for their students and only 50% of their teachers must hold a teaching license.

A superintendent from rural eastern North Carolina told me once, “Let me have a level playing field with the charter school down the street and I guarantee you, those students will choose to come here.” He explained that having control of the school calendar was one initiative that would benefit the students in his district. Local districts understand the needs of their communities. Like public charter schools, they should be able to control their own calendars to meet the needs of their district and the students in their schools. 

On Tuesday, Gov. Cooper announced that school districts would be moving to plan B in August. He is giving districts some flexibility about how they implement it. Unfortunately, calendar change was not one of the options for traditional public schools to consider. I think it would be important for the governor and the General Assembly to consider giving all districts that level of flexibility, both now during this time of crisis as well as in the future.

Editor’s clarification: Jen Mangrum’s statement says “charter schools have little to no oversight.” Charter schools have little to no legislative oversight.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.