Editorial: Give schools green light for early start

The Detroit News

Michigan education continues to lag, as evidenced by its lackluster marks on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test released this spring. Yet even with its students scoring below average across the board, the state still maintains restrictions that may prevent schools from doing their best to educate children. One of these is requiring a post-Labor Day school start. 

Starting school after Labor Day has become tradition for Michigan students and their families, but a growing number of districts are bucking the trend. This year, a record 142 school systems won waivers to begin classes early.

Michigan outlawed pre-Labor Day school starts before the 2006-07 school year in a nod to the tourism industry, which says July and August are the highest revenue-producing months for Michigan tourism. They fear families will forgo end-of-summer trips if school starts earlier. 

This made Michigan an outlier, as nearly all other states don’t restrict schools in this way. School districts are pushing back. Nearly 400 of the 900 districts statewide (including charter schools) could potentially start school in August because they meet one of the exemption requirements, according to state education officials.

If that many schools qualify, and if there are so many benefits to the waiver, why not just allow schools to decide for themselves? Making school administrators jump through unnecessary hoops to extend their school year is the wrong priority.

Reasons that justify an exemption include increasing instructional time as part of a reform plan, balancing a school calendar for year-round schooling, or aligning more closely with the calendar of post-secondary educational institutions.

Local school districts know what is best for their students and should be able to begin school when they want. Tourism officials tout studies showing economic benefits of a delayed school year, but if Michigan’s students aren’t keeping up academically that will harm the future economy much more deeply.

One benefit of allowing an early start date would be the ability to align school schedules with an Early/Middle College Program, a five-year high school program designed to allow a student to earn a high school diploma and college credit by taking classes at a community college or university. Because higher ed institutions generally begin in mid-August, schools that have to start after Labor Day face difficulties in participating in such a program.

If schools are to be held accountable for improving student performance, they should be given every tool possible to accomplish that goal.

Last year, Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, introduced a bill that would allow Michigan schools to open before Labor Day without state approval, while preserving the long weekends in August to appease the tourism industry. It passed through the Education Committee with a 4-1 vote but lost momentum in the full Senate and was never acted upon.

If schools are to be held accountable for improving student performance, they should be given every tool possible to accomplish that goal.