Captial News Service
RICHMOND – Virginia school districts finally may be able to start classes before Labor Day without getting special state permission under a bill that the House approved and sent to the Senate.
Delegates voted 76-23 last week to approve House Bill 1063, sponsored by Delegate Robert Tata, R-Virginia Beach, and a bipartisan group of 40 other legislators. The bill now is before the Senate Education and Health Committee.
But it remains uncertain whether the House measure will survive in the upper chamber; the Senate committee killed a similar Senate bill on a 9-6 vote last month.
“I’d say it’s a 50-50 chance,” said Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who was co-patron of HB 1063.
“I support the bill, and I have always supported bills that would leave it to the localities to set their school calendar.”
The legislation seeks to allow public schools to start class before Labor Day at their own discretion. That would overturn what has become known as the “Kings Dominion law,” which requires school boards to obtain a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education if they wanted to have students report before Labor Day.
McClellan said the bill would give teachers more time to instruct students before they take standardized tests and nationally administered exams.
For example, high schools nationwide give advanced placement and International Baccalaureate exams on the same day. In school systems that start class before Labor Day, students have an advantage on these tests because of the extra days of education, McClellan said.
“You have our students who are competing on those tests with students who have had two more weeks of instruction, and that’s just not really fair,” she said.
Moreover, Virginia students taking the state’s Standards of Learning tests cram in a year’s worth of information before the SOLs, and afterward they still have a month before school lets out, McClellan said.
The General Assembly passed the law requiring schools to start after Labor Day in 1986. It was intended as a temporary measure “to help Virginia’s tourism industry, whose officials said pre-Labor Day school openings were taking student workers before the tourism season ended,” said Charles Pyle, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education.
Two years later, the measure became permanent, Pyle said.
Now, opponents of HB 1063 still argue that opening schools before Labor Day could hurt the industry. Labor Day weekend marks the traditional end of the high tourism season, said Delegate John Cox, a Republican who represents Hanover County, where the Kings Dominion theme park is located.
“In 2011, the Virginia tourism industry generated $18.2 billion worth of economic activity. That supported 204,000 jobs and $1.29 billion in state and local taxes,” Cox said during the House debate over the bill. “I hope we will maintain Virginia’s post-Labor day school start date.”
McClellan said Michigan and Virginia are the only states that prevent schools from opening before Labor Day.
“Forty-eight other states’ schools open before Labor Day, and yet they have thriving tourism industries,” McClellan said.
Under current law, schools must open after Labor Day unless they apply with “good cause” to the Department of Education for a waiver to open earlier, Pyle said. Generally, school divisions receive waivers if they frequently must close because of inclement weather such as snow days during the winter season, Pyle said.
The Education Department also gives waivers if a school has an experimental program. “This would be the case for, say, a year-round school program. But the law requires that the innovative or experimental program require instruction to begin early,” Pyle said.
Seventy-seven of the 132 Virginia school divisions received waivers for this school year, he said.
“These are divisions that receive a lot of snowfall or ice or other emergency conditions during the winter months,” Pyle said. “They lose a lot of instructional time during the winter, and so they’re allowed to begin instruction before Labor Day.”
McClellan said the number of waivers has made the “Kings Dominion law” moot.
“Now that the exception has become the rule, it doesn’t make sense to still tell the rest of the schools, ‘You have to open after Labor Day.’ ”
Scorecard on School Calendar Bills
Thirteen bills giving school board more authority in setting school calendars were introduced this legislative session – 10 in the House and three in the Senate.
Two of the Senate bills (SB 257 by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, and SB 456, by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Winchester) were folded into SB 457, by Sen. David Marsden, D-Burke. On Jan. 26, the Senate Education and Health voted 9-6 that SB 457 be “passed by indefinitely,” effectively killing it for the session.
Of the 10 House bills, three have been tabled, and five are awaiting committee action. The House passed HB 1063, which would allow all Virginia school divisions to open before Labor Day, on a 76-23 vote on Feb. 2. And on a 74-24 vote Thursday, the House passed HB 591, which would apply only to schools in Martinsville and in Henry and Pittsylvania counties.
How They Voted
Here is how the House voted on Feb. 2 on “HB 1063 School calendar; local school boards responsible for setting and determining opening of school year.”
Floor: 02/02/12 House: VOTE: PASSAGE (76-Y 23-N)
YEAS – Albo, Alexander, Anderson, BaCote, Bell, Richard P., Bell, Robert B., Brink, Bulova, Byron, Carr, Cline, Comstock, Cox, M.K., Crockett-Stark, Dance, Dudenhefer, Edmunds, Englin, Fariss, Farrell, Filler-Corn, Garrett, Greason, Habeeb, Head, Herring, Hodges, Hope, Howell, A.T., Hugo, Johnson, Keam, Kilgore, Kory, LeMunyon, Lopez, Loupassi, Marshall, D.W., Massie, May, McClellan, McQuinn, Merricks, Miller, Minchew, Morris, Morrissey, O’Bannon, O’Quinn, Orrock, Plum, Putney, Ramadan, Ransone, Robinson, Rush, Rust, Scott, E.T., Scott, J.M., Sherwood, Sickles, Stolle, Surovell, Tata, Torian, Toscano, Tyler, Ward, Ware, O., Ware, R.L., Watts, Wilt, Wright, Yancey, Yost, Mr. Speaker – 76.
NAYS – Cole, Cosgrove, Cox, J.A., Gilbert, Helsel, Iaquinto, Ingram, James, Joannou, Jones, Knight, Landes, Lewis, Lingamfelter, Marshall, R.G., Morefield, Peace, Pogge, Poindexter, Spruill, Villanueva, Watson, Webert – 23.
NOT VOTING – Purkey – 1.
Capital News Service is a product of Virginia Commonweath University in Richmond.