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If you have out-of-state friends with children or pay attention to national media, you’ve probably caught on that “back to school” has already happened in most states. But not for another week for most Michigan public schools.

The 2005 law, signed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, prohibits public schools from starting the school year until after Labor Day.

It’s all about preserving a week or two of summer before classrooms consume the daily lives of families. The powerful state tourism lobby was behind this provision, and attempts to change course in the past few years have failed. In fact, the discussion rarely takes place in Lansing anymore, as most lawmakers consider it to be a futile effort.

But it’s a change that needs to happen for the sake of student achievement. Michigan lags behind its neighboring states when it comes to national standardized test scores, not to mention it clearly falls behind the curve nationally.

Add to that Michigan has one of the shortest school years and is one of only four states specifically to place tourism ahead of schooling. According to the Education Commission of the States, which surveyed laws around the country related to school year length and start times, Michigan requires 170 days and 1,098 hours, while the majority of states require 180 days.

Tourism is a major industry in the state, and its success is beneficial to the state’s coffers. The Pure Michigan campaign has drawn thousands of new out-of-state visitors to Michigan’s pristine lakes and dunes.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t justify tying the hands of educators. In 40 states, districts have the option to set their own start time and many begin in August, some as early as the first or second week. They should have that choice in Michigan, too.

Kyle Guerrant, deputy superintendent for administrative and support services for the Michigan Department of Education, agrees that Michigan students are at a disadvantage.

“We need increased opportunity for kids,” Guerrant says. He also points out that as Michigan children will have to compete both nationally and globally, this will continue to be an issue of importance. Top-performing schools outside the U.S. often have even stricter and longer school years than the best states in this country.

Under current law, individual districts can seek a waiver to start earlier or move to a year-round school. Not many do, although Guerrant says he’s seen an uptick in waiver applications.

While education department officials support a longer school year, in addition to an earlier start, Guerrant says they haven’t brought this argument to the Legislature in recent years. The last time the state board formally called for doing away with the post-Labor Day start was 2009.

Gov. Rick Snyder advocated for additional money for schools that chose to extend their school years. While the Legislature agreed to include that funding in next year’s budget, lawmakers didn’t extend it to future budgets.

That’s unfortunate, as studies have shown the long Michigan summer breaks lead to summer learning loss, especially among children who can least afford it, such as those from low-income families. Year-round schools don’t necessarily have many more classroom days throughout the year, but they are spaced out more beneficially for children.

Lawmakers should make improving the education of Michigan’s children their top priority. That includes allowing schools more flexibility to set school start times.

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