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Five days could spark new school calendar battle

Posted December 6, 2011
Updated December 7, 2011

The longstanding battle over the length of North Carolina's school year could rear its head again next session. 

In 2004, tourism lobbyists, business owners and some parents prevailed on lawmakers to limit the length of the school calendar. They argued that local school boards were setting school start dates earlier every year, cutting into beach rentals, camp enrollments, part-time labor availability and family vacations.

Educators argued that those interests shouldn't outweigh schools' needs to address early college programs, snow days, and other issues. But they lost the battle: state lawmakers told local boards they couldn't start school before August 25th, couldn't end after June 10th, and must include a minimum of 180 days of classroom instruction.

A provision in this year's budget raises that to 185 days by the 2012-13 school year, adding five more classroom days between those bookend dates.

About half the state’s 120 school districts have already asked the State Board of Education for a waiver. Those requests have been put on hold for now after a request by Gov. Bev Perdue. 

At a town hall meeting in Cornelius Monday, House Speaker Thom Tillis predicted lawmakers would repeal the five-day addition when they come back into session next May.

Senate Education chair Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, thinks differently.

“I don’t see any indication that the Senate would be prone to do that,” he said.

Tillman was the chief proponent of adding the extra days. “When you look at the length of our day and our year, we are on the short end of the stick, the short end of test scores,” he said. “We’re in a global marketplace, so to compete, I think we need more instructional time for the students. I don’t know how you get it without doing that.” Tillman on school calendar changes Tillman on school calendar changes

The law didn’t take effect this year because budget-writers didn’t add any extra money to keep the lights on and the buses running for the extra days. But Tillman says lawmakers will fix that problem when they come back next May. 

“There will be money,” he pledged, noting that budget-writers will have funds left over from appropriations for diesel fuel for school buses. Diesel prices have come down since the budget was written this past spring. “We can cover it, I do believe. We’re not gonna let ‘em sit out there without the funds. We can’t do that.” 

But Tillman says NC's school calendar needs more comprehensive reform than just five extra days in class. 

“What I do think we’ll have to look at is the start date of August 25th,” he said. “I do think there will be a little bit of tweaking on not using the 25th as a hard date, but whenever that last Monday comes in the month, which will give them a little leeway.”

“But teachers need some time down, and kids need some time down. I would love for everybody to have a flexible calendar, where they could use a year-round calendar and work all these things in,” he added.

Still, Tillman conceded, changing the school calendar law will be a hard sell, politically speaking. “I’m ready,” he joked, “but you’ve gotta get a lot of ponies to go along with the horses.” His unedited comments are above.

Tillman already has one member of the herd on his side: State Schools Superintendent June Atkinson. She sounded like she was reading from his notes today when she talked to reporters about the extra days.

“I believe that we do need to extend the school year for our students,” she said. “We need to do so because we are competing with students across this world who are going to school at least 200 days.” 

Atkinson also said she favors a repeal of the school calendar law to allow “schools to start when it is best for that school district to start, and so that we can move to a balanced calendar.” Atkinson State Schools Chief Atkinson on calendar changes

Atkinson says a different school calendar with shorter and more frequent breaks would give teachers more opportunities to work with students who are falling behind. “There’s lots of research from Harvard University and from Duke University that show we can improve student achievement” by doing away with a schedule that gives students almost three months at a time out of the classroom.

But Atkinson said she’s concerned about the cost of the extra days to school districts that are already strapped for cash. “I would hope the General Assembly would provide transportation costs and other costs associated with the extension,” she said.

If not, said Atkinson, “School districts are going to have to take those dollars from another place. And that again will have an impact on the classroom and the students in the classroom.”

Her unedited comments are above.

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  • mathgeek Dec 14, 2011

    littleriver69: I would challenge you to do a little research. You might be surprised to find out that many of our “government schools” are doing an exceptional job in teaching ALL students. Comparing what they do to what happens in private or even some charter schools is statistically invalid–when parents are involved enough to pay for or transport students to an alternate school, that means that they already have something that gives their children an advantage-their own belief that education is important (I agree with the comment by josephlawrence43 that attitude is the key). Also agree with gabi-let’s remove those bookends and allow locally elected boards of education determine the school calendar, putting that power back in the hands of you, the local voters in each school system, rather than having it determined by state legislators who have difficulty agreeing on what is best for the entire state.

  • mathgeek Dec 14, 2011

    northern-transp: Actually, NC is participating in a major curriculum revision-going with the Common Core State Standards for the two major subjects currently available (math and ELA) and the NC Essential Standards for most other subjects. This comes with a major revision of the testing program as well. You can read about these changes at the NC Public Schools site (select ACRE in the Program menu). Before someone says that it was in need of a change, I would state that the prior Standard Course of Study wasn't full of holes-if anything, it contained too much per grade/subj and didn't allow for enough depth. These new curricula will cover less per grade/subj but will expect a much greater depth for each topic. Those of us who do research in education already realize that many states look to NC to emulate what we are doing in areas such as curriculum, testing, accountability, and teacher evaluation. Contrary to much of what you read, NC can be proud of her public schools.

  • northern-transplant Dec 14, 2011

    Here's a novel idea -- find the holes in the curriculum and FIX THEM! Subjecting students to more of the same is not going to be a magic solution.

  • mathgeek Dec 13, 2011

    Tillman: “What I do think we’ll have to look at is the start date of August 25th,” he said. “I do think there will be a little bit of tweaking on not using the 25th as a hard date, but whenever that last Monday comes in the month, which will give them a little leeway.” What leeway? If August begins on a Saturday, the last Monday is the 31st; if it begins on a Friday,the last Monday is the 25th. The last Monday can never be any earlier than the 25th in a month with 31 days. I know that he probably just spoke quickly without thinking, but I would argue that there should not be a hard start date set by the state. Such a restriction is counter to the concept of local control of the schools by a locally elected school board which is naturally attuned to the needs of the community.

  • valmarriott Dec 11, 2011

    tobryant2: Schools are NOT babysitters. It is not the responsibility of the school system to care for your child. They are educators and teach your children. Next, schools need to value the days they are given. How many times are our kids pulled out of class for "other" things. How many programs, extra testing, athletic events, or other non-educational things do we pull kids out of class for? Also, if politicians, parents, business leaders and the media do not show kids that education is a valuable, serious institution then kids will not take their education seriously. There are truancy laws that need to be enforced and that includes our lawmakers who do not adequately fund, therefore support, education.

  • jnc67 Dec 8, 2011

    I like the idea of adding extra minutes to the school days for elementary and middle school kids; however, the high school classes are already 85 minutes. Even in college most of my classes were no longer than 75 minutes (except for once-a-week night classes, and those had a break). 95 minutes seems excessive.

  • tobryant2 Dec 8, 2011

    The calendar and length of day need to be reflective of a regular 8 to 5 job. It lessens the burden on working class people and educates our children better. Working class people get two weeks of vacation a year most days are used on their kids sick days. The only people going on long vacations in August are the 1%.

  • littleriver69 Dec 8, 2011

    Its Government schools. Who really cares? Kids learn little anyway.

  • josephlawrence43 Dec 7, 2011

    Extending the school day, expanding the number of days of attendance, cutting down the number of teacher workdays--none of this will amount to a hill of beans unless and until we change the public attitude about learning and education. Since Brown v. Board, the national school systems have "dummied down" their curriculum to the point that education is no longer important. If its not important to parents, it won't be important to kids.
    And if its not important to kids, you can beat them with a stick all day long, and it won't change a thing. The difference in the frequently used comparison between Asian and American students is not that they are any smarter than American kids--its all a matter of attitude, and the willingness to work.

  • common_sense_plz Dec 7, 2011

    Why not lengthen the school days to equal the additional 5 days. There will be no additional cost for fuel for the 5 additional days they have tacked on.

    Another thing that we have to realize is that it is not just the amount of days you are instructed, but how you are instructed, not all teachers are great at what they do and children do not do well in their class. In addition to this, kids cant learn when other students refuse to listen and talk and cut up during class, because the teachers and administration are not allowed to correct the problem children or have them sit out of class. 5 additional days is not going to make a difference unless the problems are taken care of.

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