As Alexandria schoolchildren sharpen their pencils for the first day of school, the majority of students across the state are entering their second, third or even fifth week of instruction. Remember that so-called “Kings Dominion Law” that prevents school divisions from opening before Labor Day in order to help the commonwealth’s tourism industry? Out of 133 school divisions, 83 of them (62%) have waivers from the state Department of Education permitting them to open earlier. Together, those school divisions represent nearly 714,000 schoolchildren, about 55% of all students enrolled (based on 2016-2017 enrollment data).
And speaking of Kings Dominion, the amusement park was closed for three days during the middle of the week before Labor Day. Makes sense. Most kids were in school.
School divisions with waivers fall into four categories: those that were closed an average of eight days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of snow or other severe weather conditions; those that are surrounded by divisions with waivers and wish to be on the same schedule; those that have an instructional partnership with a division that has a waiver; and those that are providing an experimental or innovative program. (ACPS, for instance, has a specific waiver that applies solely to the year-round calendar at Samuel Tucker Elementary. Several years ago, ACPS applied for a waiver for the entire division arguing that a pre-Labor Day start would improve academic achievement. The request was denied.)
The number of school divisions with pre-Labor Day opening waivers has been steadily increasing, but it hit the tipping point last year when Fairfax County, with its 188,000 students, was granted a waiver based on the number of weather-related closures the previous year. The three largest school divisions in the state—Fairfax, Loudon and Prince William counties—all have waivers. The only northern Virginia school divisions without waivers are Alexandria, Arlington County and Falls Church. (This map is out of date but gives you a general idea of where the school divisions with waivers are located.) Shenandoah County and Mecklenburg County joined Fairfax in starting before Labor Day this year.
Why does it matter? Students with later school start dates are at a disadvantage because they have less time to prepare for the state Standards of Learning exams, as well as Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate tests that are given on the same day nationwide. Students in Wise County, Virginia, near the Kentucky and Tennessee borders, started on August 3, four-and-a-half weeks before students in Alexandria (and they are done on May 14). The delayed schedule results in weeks of instructional time after exams are administered—classroom time that is not always used in a meaningful way. Some AP teachers give lengthy summer assignments so that they can cover all of the material before the early May exams.
There’s also the matter of local control: Isn’t a local jurisdiction better-equipped than the state bureaucracy to devise a calendar that meets the needs of its students? I’ll be the first to admit that a post-Labor Day start was most convenient for our family when our daughters were in elementary and middle school. But after they reached high school, I realized how much the calendar constrained the AP teachers and students. I also came around to the view that ALL of our students would benefit from a pre-Labor Day opening.
Over the years, there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to repeal the Kings Dominion law. In the most recent legislative session, Del. Tag Greason (R-Loudon) sponsored a bill to give localities control over their school calendars. It was approved by the House of Delegates but never made it out of the Senate Education and Health Committee. When the exception becomes the rule, it’s time for the General Assembly to end the charade, get out of the way, and do what’s best for kids.