Lawmakers back calendar flexibility for schools

House members said Thursday that they want out of the school calendar debate, voting overwhelmingly in favor of two bills designed to give school districts more flexibility in when they start and end classes each year.

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Matthew Burns
Cullen Browder
RALEIGH, N.C. — House members said Thursday that they want out of the school calendar debate, voting overwhelmingly in favor of two bills designed to give school districts more flexibility in when they start and end classes each year.

School calendars have caused an annual legislative tug-o-war for more than a decade, when the grassroots Save Our Summers group successfully lobbied to etch the start and end dates to school years into state law. Now, traditional-calendar schools cannot start classes before "the Monday closest to Aug. 26" and must end by the second week of June.

Since then, the tourism industry has beaten back any effort to change the calendar law, leaving lawmakers to try to get around the restrictions for their local school districts by filing dozens of so-called "calendar flexibility" bills each year. Other than those in response to severe weather that shuts schools for extended periods, however, few ever pass.

House Bill 375 would allow school districts to move their start dates up to Aug. 15 to better align with community college schedules so high school students can take college courses. Sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said all but two of the state's 58 community colleges start on or after Aug. 15, with the other two starting on Aug. 14.

House Bill 389 creates a three-year pilot project for school districts in 20 rural counties, including Duplin, Northampton, Robeson, Warren and Wilson, during which they could start their school year as early as Aug. 10 or end them as late as mid-June. The study would start in either 2018-19 or 2019-20, and districts could opt out if they're not interested.

Coastal lawmakers blasted the bills, saying they would chew up about 20 percent of the summer vacation season.

"This is a backdoor way of moving the school calendar into August," said Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, of aligning school schedules with community colleges.

"When you talk about local control, think about the parents and the teachers," said Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret. "This is not what our families want."

McElraft said students and teachers would have a harder time landing the summer jobs they now work for extra money, and she also noted that summer tourism now generates about $785 million more in state and local tax revenue than before the calendar law was enacted.

"How many teachers and teaching assistants does that pay for?" she asked.

Backers of the proposals said starting the school year earlier would allow students to take final exams for the fall semester before the Christmas break, which could lead to improved test performance, and would give school districts more leeway to schedule around days when classes are canceled because of severe weather.

"We hear from parents every day all the way down to elementary school who would like school to begin earlier in August," said Leanne Winner, director of government relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association.

Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, the sponsor of the 20-county pilot program measure, said the proposal would help state education officials collect data on student performance under different calendar scenarios.

"We need to make decisions based on data, not presumptions," Warren said.

Other lawmakers simply said they no longer want to be part of the calendar debate.

"Why in the world are we up here in Raleigh setting calendars?" asked rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven.

"It's an education issue, period," said Rep. Kevin Corbin, R-Macon, urging fellow House members not to get hung up on the tourism debate.

Gov. Roy Cooper eased into the debate when asked, saying officials need to ensure students meet state attendance requirements but that local flexibility would be "positive."

House Bill 389 cleared the House on a 104-6 vote after lawmakers defeated an attempt to add five counties to the project. House Bill 375 gained preliminary approval on a 101-7 vote, and a final vote is expected Monday.

Whether either measure becomes law is unclear, however, as the Senate has in the past been less responsive to granting school calendar flexibility.

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