Given Michigan’s lackluster school performance compared with most other states and countries, school districts should have every tool possible to improve student achievement. One of those tools is extending the school year, and that means the ability to start prior to Labor Day.

The summer brain drain for kids is real, and the best way to combat it is with shorter summer breaks. Yet for more than a decade, K-12 districts have operated under an unnecessary law telling them they can’t. In 40 states, districts can set their own start time, and many choose to begin in August. Only two others demand post-Labor Day starts.

Schools should be able to make decisions that best serve their communities — and the needs of their students.

The tourism lobby backed the law, which took effect in 2006, and defends it now because it wants to maximize fleeting summer days and up north trips. Plenty of families do take advantage of that final long weekend before most Michigan districts start school.

But they could take those trips earlier in the summer. And Michigan is beautiful in all seasons, so the tourism folks need not worry too much.

What must be a priority in this state is education.

State Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, is on the case. He introduced legislation in March that would remove the current restrictions and give districts flexibility to start in August. As a compromise with the tourism industry, he included a provision for four-day weekends leading up to Labor Day. Even that seems limiting to districts that are trying to get ahead.

It made it out of the Education Committee but hasn’t gained traction in the full Senate. The 180 required school days would stay the same.

“For me, this is an issue of local versus state control,” Knollenberg said in a statement. “I think these decisions belong solely in the hands of the school districts and the communities they serve. Parents, teachers and school administrators know what’s best for their children and their community.”

The Michigan Department of Education does offer districts the ability to get a waiver to start early, and it’s reportedly a fairly straightforward process. State Superintendent Brian Whiston, similar to his predecessor Mike Flanagan, believes districts should have that option, as long as they can defend the reason why.

It’s an additional step, however, that doesn’t seem to serve much purpose but to generate more paperwork and delays.

An increasing number of districts are seeking the waivers, so the demand is clear. According to Knollenberg, only 60 percent of waivers are granted.

Kyle Guerrant, MDE deputy superintendent of finance and operations, says a record 123 districts received waivers this year, and the vast majority (96) wanted to either align their calendars with post-secondary programs or participate in a year-round calendar. Others include schools that are persistently low achieving.

Guerrant says the department is currently looking to study the impacts of an earlier start on districts that have struggled. That would be helpful information for the state to have.

As schools face increasing demands in testing and teacher accountability, more flexibility with the calendar could help.

“It offers additional learning opportunities,” Guerrant says.

Schools ought to have that option, free from waivers, and lawmakers should address this when they return from their summer break.

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