Editorial: A real talk about school calendars

Published: 9/8/2017 12:05:02 AM

The question of whether the school year should begin before or after Labor Day is, on its face, a simple one. Either you want to give kids a little more summer or you want to get them back in the classroom ASAP. But as Donald Trump famously said of health care, who knew it could be so complicated?

Gov. Chris Sununu, who believes the Legislature should consider mandating a post-Labor Day start to the school year, will soon find out just how divided the state is on the issue. He told the New Hampshire Union Leader recently that the change would work “better for our families and for our economy” and that “every person I have talked to thinks this is a home run of an idea.” If that’s true, all it tells us is that Sununu hasn’t talked to “every person” he needs to.

It’s easy to see why people with a personal economic stake in the state’s tourism industry like the idea. When schools open their doors before the end of August, that’s a lost week or two of income for businesses that cater to vacationing families.

To that point, the Atlantic reported last month that Michigan’s later start to the school year has resulted in a $20 million boost to the state’s economy. As CEO of the Waterville Valley ski resort, Sununu saw this dynamic firsthand. “We were seeing a drop-off dramatically in business not at the end of August but by the middle of August as families were cutting back on their late-summer vacations leading up to Labor Day,” Sununu told the Union Leader. Tourism-related businesses also wrestle with staffing challenges when high school-age workers are forced to leave their summer jobs before the last hurrah of Labor Day.

So, from a tourism perspective, the later start to the school calendar is largely a no-brainer. But the picture changes when you factor in the needs of schoolchildren, which is where the governor’s focus should be.

“Brain drain” – also known as the “summer slide” – is a good reason to get kids back in school as soon as possible. Learning loss is a real problem for all kids but especially for lower-income students who often don’t have the same access to summer educational programs or camps as their more affluent peers. For those same low-income students – the ones who receive free or reduced-price lunches – a return to school can also ease the burden of food insecurity. There are districts in the state that offer learning opportunities and meals for all students during the summer, but there are still many that don’t.

To put it simply, this discussion must be expanded beyond tourism dollars if the state truly wants to make schools work better for students and their families. As the leader of this dialogue, Sununu could ask:

How about going to a year-round schedule, with short vacations between seasons (which would certainly address the issue of the summer learning loss)?

And what if the “summer session” in a year-round school year focused on fun and educational excursions such as field trips to museums, overnight nature trips, creative writing retreats, and outdoor science and math projects?

Are weeklong vacations in February and April really necessary? What about one week in March instead?

While we’re at it, why not abandon the entire concept of individual school years and begin thinking of public education as a perpetual learning laboratory where students advance through classes and grade levels when they master topics rather than when the calendar says it’s time?

Sununu’s push for a post-Labor Day start to the school year appears to be purely about economics. If the governor really wants to lead the people of New Hampshire in a dialogue about school calendars, that’s great – but he should think much bigger. He should also make sure that the education of students – and not tourism dollars – is the primary focus.

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