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Md. comptroller pushes for later start date for schools, but local officials not as convinced

August 19, 2013|By KAUSTUV BASU | kaustuv.basu@herald-mail.com

The president of the Washington County Board of Education said he is keeping an open mind about a proposal to extend summer break to allow Maryland schools to open after Labor Day.

Justin Hartings said last week that the school board would have to look into the effects of such a move, including any change in the time students might have to prepare for standardized tests.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot is lobbying for state schools to open after Labor Day, pointing to the economic benefits of extending the tourist season.

His push comes as a state-appointed task force, which includes Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, begins to study the impact of such a move on the economy and the educational system.

Franchot last week released the results of a study by the state Bureau of Revenue Estimates — a study he commissioned — showing that if the school year began after Labor Day, it would lead to an additional $74.3 million in economic activity in the state.

That would include $3.7 million in wages, and $7.7 million in extra state and local revenue, according to the comptroller’s office.

Hartings said the comptroller “has my attention.”

“I think he has work to do to convince me, but my mind is not closed, and I am anxious to take a look at it,” he said.

The change “would mean jobs and supplemental income for so many people who desperately need it in Maryland, bringing nearly $4 million in additional wages to a state that’s near the bottom in the country in private sector wage growth,” Kim Frum, a spokeswoman for the comptroller’s office, said in an email.

“And beyond the money or economic impact, it’s about Maryland families — particularly the folks who save up a little bit every paycheck just so they can spend a week in Ocean City once a year with their family,”  Frum said.

Franchot believes the new data is important because the task force — which has until June 30, 2014, to report back to the governor and Maryland General Assembly — could take a detailed look at the impacts of a post-Labor Day start for schools, Frum said.

Setting the school calendar is one of the few things over which a local school system has control, and they are prepared to reflect the needs of their particular school systems, Hartings said.

“I think that is valuable because I think the needs and expectations of the calendar for our community are probably different than what they would be in Ocean City or in Rockville .... I like that process, and I’m inclined to say that local boards should continue to have pretty large discretion over how their calendars are structured,” he said.

The county school board discussed the idea of schools opening following Labor Day at an October 2012 meeting after a member of the Washington County Lobbying Coalition suggested the idea.

The school board voted 6-1 to inform the coalition that board members were not in favor of such a change.

Franchot said he believes that local school systems should have the authority to decide how to go about a post-Labor Day start, Frum said.

Testing impact

Moving the start date forward carries with it the risk of students having less time to prepare for standardized tests, Hartings said.

“Having students in class with their teachers is the best way, I think, for us to have students perform better, and that would be reflected on the tests,” he said.

The Maryland School Assessment, which tests reading and math for students in the third through eighth grade, usually is scheduled in early March, while a science test is given in April or early May. Advanced Placement tests are administered in May. 

Richard Wright, spokesman for Washington County Public Schools, said any changes to school start times would present challenges as students prepare for standardized tests.

“We will have to study what all this would mean,” Wright said.

Frances Glendening, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said that the organization opposes legislative initiatives that reduce the authority of local boards.

She echoed Hartings’ views about school calendars developed at the county level.

“This process is essential as each jurisdiction has specific and unique needs. Given the importance of preserving that process, MABE will be monitoring the work of the task force closely, and making recommendations as appropriate,” Glendening said in an email.

Frum said Franchot disagrees with a “teach-to-the-test” education mentality.

“He would respectfully suggest that an academic calendar based around standardized testing — as opposed to student learning — is misguided philosophically, as well as logistically, because it causes useless days at the end of the year without any real instruction,” she said.

180-day rule

Current Maryland law requires that public schools be open for at least 180 days and have 1,080 school hours in 10 months, according to the state Department of Legislative Services.

During the 2013-2014 school year, all 24 school systems in Maryland started school for some students earlier than Labor Day.

Washington County schools opened on Aug. 22 in 2012. The first day of school this year is Wednesday.

Myers, who is on the state task force that is looking into the issue, said that he had an open mind and wanted to look carefully at divergent viewpoints.

“As someone who is not an educator and the owner of a small business, I am interested in finding out how much wasted time there is in the classroom .... What about the last two weeks in school when nothing really happens?” he asked.

Myers wondered whether the schools’ sports calendar would be pushed forward to as far as Sept. 8 or Sept. 9 if school started after Labor Day.

“Some uniformity across school systems would be good, but I think it might come down to ‘If it ain’t broke, so don’t fix it,’” Myers said.

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