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Currently, school boards in North Carolina and 12 other states are not permitted to begin the school year before a date specified in state law.

Much of the rationale for those laws centers on the projected economic impact of pre- and post-Labor Day start dates.

Studies produced or funded by tourism industry groups contend that pre-Labor Day start dates reduce tourism dollars and thus deprive state and local governments of millions in state and local tax revenue.

Studies produced or funded by tourism industry groups contend that pre-Labor Day start dates reduce tourism dollars and thus deprive state and local governments of millions in state and local tax revenue. I contend that these studies do not account for actual economic behavior. Unfortunately, when flawed research enters the political sphere it alarms well-intentioned state legislators who often want to consider allowing school districts to formulate school calendars based on the diverse needs of the community. 

Last year, for example, Maryland lawmakers convened a legislative task force to study a post-Labor Day start date for public schools in the state. While the educational benefits of the change were discussed, task force members appeared to be swayed by government and tourism-industry studies that compared estimates of the economic impact of pre- and post-Labor Day starts.

Given the origin of these studies, it is not surprising that research on calendar proposals in Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Maryland, and a handful of other states arrive at similar conclusions. All agreed that enforcement of a post-Labor Day start date would produce revenue and employment bonanzas for those states. These studies also agreed that permitting districts to begin the school year before Labor Day would lead to irreparable economic harm. They only disagreed on the magnitude of each.

A 2008 Tennessee study estimated that moving to a post-Labor Day start date would generate approximately $15.5 million in new state and local tax revenue and over 2,600 new jobs statewide. On the other hand, a Maryland study from 2013 claimed that there would be $70 million of economic activity lost each week that schools were in session before Labor Day. Needless to say, that scary pronouncement was enough to convince the task force to recommend a post-Labor Day start date for Maryland Public Schools.

Maryland is not alone. Virginia’s school calendar law is nicknamed “The Kings Dominion Law” for good reason. Kings Dominion amusement park was one of the many powerful and outspoken corporations behind a 1986 law that required districts to start their school year after Labor Day unless granted a waiver by the state. 

Lawmakers are seldom told that many of these economic impact studies do not consider opportunity costs — that is, the value of alternative uses of resources.

Lawmakers are seldom told that many of these economic impact studies do not consider opportunity costs — that is, the value of alternative uses of resources. Families may reduce expenditures on vacations and travel based on the school start date, but they do not simply hide that money in a shoe box under their bed. Rather, they will likely shift their spending to any number of taxable goods and services. Claims that early start days drive down tax revenue often fail to account for these decisions.

These studies also fail to consider how families, over time, adapt to school calendar changes. While surveys of parents suggest that they would shorten vacations in response to earlier start dates, families may simply change their vacationing habits in subsequent years. Parents with children in year-round schools often forgo traditional summertime excursions in favor of vacations that coincide with track-out periods throughout the school year. When these changes occur, families spend their vacation dollars in ways not easily identified by conventional economic impact models.

Obviously, this assumes that, if given the choice, school boards would decide to start the school year before Labor Day. It may be sensible for districts that rely heavily on teenage labor and tax revenue from tourism to have calendars that accommodate the local tourist season. 

In some circumstances, particularly in the mountainous regions of the state, weather patterns often necessitate an earlier start to the school year or built-in snow days. Other school boards may adjust their calendar for academic reasons. A district may choose to create a high school calendar that corresponds to one established by a community college partner. Another district may want to ensure that interim exams occur before, and not after, Christmas vacation.

Regardless of the reasons for adopting a certain school calendar, it should be a decision based on input from parents, teachers, businesses, elected officials, and others.

Indeed, representatives from government and tourism-industry interests have warned legislators that granting calendar flexibility would impair their state’s economy and weaken their reelection prospects. But I argue that inestimable economic and political benefits flow from allowing districts to implement a school calendar that best meets the needs of students, parents, and public schools.

Dr. Terry Stoops

Dr. Terry Stoops is Director of Research and Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.