Educators ready for school before Labor Day, northern tourism is not

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Pattengill Elementary School students Evan Binelli, from left, Sam Dunlap and James Berry work on an extreme earthquake simulation project in the media center in Berkley on May 17. Pattengill students will be returning to school before Labor Day this fall.

For educators, the list of reasons to start school before Labor Day is long: restoring local control to school calendars, allowing districts to front-load instructional hours in anticipation of snow days and keeping pace with athletics.

For business and tourism officials in northern Michigan, the list is short and to the point: profits.

But two bills in the Legislature would allow — but not require — every school in Michigan to start before Labor Day.

Since the ban on a pre-Labor Day start went into effect in 2006 in Michigan, hundreds of districts have applied for waivers from the Michigan Department of Education to get permission to start school earlier.

At least 178 school districts are using approved waivers to start school before Labor Day, according to the Michigan Department of Education. Another 28 are awaiting approval.

The state allows an intermediate school district to obtain a three-year waiver that covers all of its local districts. About 43 of the state's 56 ISDs have waivers. 

With about 840 local school districts, that means the number of schools actually using a waiver to start before the holiday is larger than 178 but is not tracked by state education officials.

Many districts say they need the earlier start to align their calendars with dual-enrollment programs that allow high school students to take college courses. 

Districts are also granted waivers because they meet exemptions built into the law, which include increased instructional time as part of a reform plan as well as balancing a school calendar for year-round schooling.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Michigan is only one of three states that mandates a post-Labor Day start. Most districts across the United States have local control over their start date and most begin school in August.

In Michigan, Republican state lawmakers have proposed two bills that would repeal a section of the law that deals with the school calendar and Labor Day. 

Pattengill Elementary School librarian Rachel Smith assists students Sam Dunlap, from left, Dylan Johnson and Chase Shelly on their extreme earthquake simulation project in the media center at the school in Berkley. Pattengill students will return to school before Labor Day this fall.

State Reps. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield, and Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, are co-sponsors of the bills. Johnson said each school district should make the decision on when to start.

"The closer-to-home these decisions are made, the more efficiently the school calendar start date can be tailored to fit the needs of each respective district and its students," Johnson said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office said her legislative team is reviewing the bills and had no further comment.

The bills passed through the House education committee with bipartisan support and were referred to the House ways and means committee on May 7. Johnson said the bills face an uphill battle in ways and means where members are more sympathetic to the concerns of the business community.

"I disagree this will harm them. Kids have to be in school 180 days, and it's just shifting them around," Johnson said. " ... It's more of a battle between those who have tourism and tourist destinations districts and those who do not."

Michigan outlawed the practice of starting school before Labor Day in 2005 in a nod to tourism officials who said July and August are the top two highest revenue-producing months for Michigan’s tourism-related businesses.

Dave Lorenz, vice president for Travel Michigan, said the original intent of the law was to allow families to enjoy their leisure time together through Labor Day weekend, provide opportunities for young people to keep summer jobs and keep Michigan travel businesses open during the most dependable time for warm weather. 

"This increases visitor spending and overall growth to Michigan’s economy," Lorenz said. "Ultimately, we need to come to a solution that meets these goals and provides educators with the appropriate amount of class time to ensure the quality educational experience our children need and deserve.”

In the last two decades, several bills have sought and failed to remove the mandate. In 2007, state lawmakers passed legislation allowing districts to request a waiver to begin before Labor Day.

But business and tourism officials in Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula and across the Upper Peninsula want to put the brakes on any legislation that would cut into family vacation plans before the major summer holiday.

Kent Wood, director of government relations for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, said all nine chambers that are partners in the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance, which serves 14 counties in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, oppose the bills.

"This does have an impact on industries that rely on six to eight weeks of the year to make their year," Wood said of districts who begin school before Labor Day. "It may seem trivial, one to two weekends, but it's 25%  of their (money) making days."

Officials with Traverse City Tourism claim the state's pre-Labor Day ban and increased funding for the Pure Michigan campaign have had a significant impact on building visit volume and providing benefits to the entire state for small business and jobs.

The Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce opposed a similar bill to repeal the ban in 2017 and issued a call to action for all of its members.

"Our business community wants to be real about other educational issues. So if there is data about starting kids before Labor Day really makes a difference, we are open to it," Wood said.

Trevor Tkach, president and CEO Traverse City Tourism, said the ban on a pre-Labor Day start has meant a lot of business for the northern Michigan economy since 2006.

An impact study by the Anderson Economic Group provided by Tkach says the law boosted overnight tourism spending statewide by $3.2 million in 2007 and resulted in a $1.53 million increase in room revenues for northern Lower Peninsula the same year.

"The data from 2007 was important because it illustrated the immediate economic impact the law had on the entire state," Tkach said. "Anecdotally, I can say that late August demand has been on the decline as more schools in the state are getting waivers to start early."

Still, business officials in southeastern Michigan say they support an earlier start.

Officials at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, which supports 11 counties in southeast Michigan, said starting earlier reduces the amount of lost learning time or "melt" that occurs during Michigan's long summer break from instruction.

"The idea that we can compact that melt is better for students," said Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the chamber. "And we think that it's best left to individual districts. We have seen districts apply to waivers and getting them. That means districts have made the decisions as to what they prefer."

As far as an impact on tourism and the economy, Williams said there may be concerns in northern Michigan communities that rely more heavily on the tourism industry, but the bill would still require the Friday and Monday around Labor Day weekend be off limits to schools.

"Each district will make the choice that best suits their needs," Williams said. "We understand the concerns of the community up north that rely on the tourism industry. With a lot of these waiver being issued already, that is the reality."

MDE spokesman Bill DiSessa said the education department supports the legislation.

"Districts could use this as an opportunity to front-load instructional days and build a buffer against cancellations," he said. "Days added to the end of the year are less beneficial as some students already have graduated or left for vacation."

Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said the bills do not force any districts to start before Labor Day, so any district that wants to wait may still do so.

"We feel when school starts should be a local district decision," Wigent said. "We understand there are communities where it makes to sense to start after Labor Day. However, there are many communities that are ready to start before Labor Day, and they should be able to do so."

The Berkley School District in Oakland County is one of the districts headed back to school in August for the first time since the ban was enacted.

The district, which is using a waiver from Oakland Schools to start before Labor Day, announced the first day of school for students will be Aug. 26.

Superintendent Dennis McDavid said when Labor Day falls later in September — in 2020 it falls on Sept. 7 — it means students have to stay in school later into June.

The board and the community asked McDavid to create a calendar for 2019-20 and beyond that would allow the last days of school to fall by mid-June, not later.

"For us, it’s a matter of what the community wants. We want to respond to that," McDavid said.

Engadine Consolidated Schools, which serves students 270 students and 464 square miles in the Upper Peninsula, started the school year in August last year after receiving a waiver from the state.

Superintendent Angie McArthur said the majority of her high school students participate in high school sports, which begin around the second week of August, and are already at the school.

"We wanted to jump on that and get a couple of days in to outline expectation for the years and return after Labor Day and get going with instructions," she said.