Letter to the Editor

Recent legislation on school start date

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I have watched with amazement some of the opinions and editorials printed about the tourism industry in response to efforts by us and several other groups to enforce the state's school start date law. I only wish some of those folks had done their homework to determine what affect this really has on their own pocketbook.

The existing law says that Iowa schools need to start after Labor Day. It was drafted the last time Gov. Branstad was in office. That "law" remains on the books, however the Department of Education grants waivers to most school districts with no reason required. We are simply asking that Iowa start to enforce current law, and have even suggested moving the earliest start date in Iowa law up to the fourth Monday of August -- which in some years will be the 22nd.

The education lobby has accused us of being anti-education. Yet, we have asked for years for proof that starting school earlier is better for students. No such proof exists. In fact, some neighboring states that start after Labor Day are now ahead of Iowa in student performance. Ask yourself: Is your child's education better as a result of starting the school year earlier? As a parent, are you aware that a calendar is even being discussed by your local school board, and do you really have the opportunity to provide input?

Opponents have argued that Iowa children need more education, not less. This bill doesn't affect the number of education days. It just moves the school year back.

Opponents have argued that this law would cause the school year to end in June. In the 2009-10 school year, the last year, we have the start and end dates, the last Monday of August was the 24th. One hundred and forty-one school districts started on or after Aug. 24, and 84 percent of them finished in May. Of the 22 districts that finished in June, 17 of those finished by June 3, a Thursday.

Opponents will tell you that community colleges and sports need to be taken into consideration, yet we have been told that the calendars for community colleges and sports adjust based on the student calendars. This brings up another question -- this year, a school district is planning to begin on Aug. 6. Doesn't currently having start dates ranging from Aug. 6 to September already create scheduling issues for school sports?

This bill does not affect year-round schools. It does not impede on school district's ability to have in-service days whenever they want. This bill does not ban spring break, as claimed by education lobbyists a couple of days ago. It does not alter teacher pay or hours. This bill does one thing -- It ensures that schools in Iowa do not start before the fourth Monday of August. It stops Iowa's school districts from creeping closer and closer to July. This is not some crazy, off-the-wall, anti-education idea. In fact, over the years we have fought for this issue, we have come across many parents and teachers that support this concept. If you're one of them, you should pick up the phone and call your legislators about it.

We all want education reform and we support our schools. Working in economic development, we can tell you that our businesses and industries cry for people who are capable and willing to work. For years, we have watched many states across the nation with a school start date after Labor Day and they have higher student achievement scores than we do. We also realize that there is extra money in those states for education because businesses are "allowed" to be "open for business" for two or three additional weeks. This benefits all taxpayers by providing needed revenue to our state budget to financially support schools.

The school community is the first group on the steps of the Capitol every year asking for "allowable growth" and none of the business people -- including tourism entities -- begrudge state spending for education. All they ask is that they are allowed to make the additional money to support our education efforts so that we have a qualified and educated workforce -- all for the benefit of our state and you as taxpayers.

Lawmakers are trying to balance a budget that spends over 60 percent on education. We are not disputing the amount, once again give us an opportunity to "make the money" so we have it to continue to spend on education. That's right -- you the taxpayer are paying the wages of each and every staff member at your local schools.

Our smaller communities recognize the critical impact as well as our destination markets like Okoboji. Our motels and campgrounds close when school starts. Some of our seasonal businesses depend on teenage labor and when those teens go back to school, they are forced to close their doors -- putting a continual burden on taxpayers to sustain community pools and aquatic centers and other attractions because they will never be self-sustaining if only open less than 80 days a year.

We appreciate the fact that our teenagers want to gain work experience, make money for continuing their education, and developing skills to become a valued member of their community. Let's give them a well-rounded education and quit quibbling over one or two weeks in the fall.

Let's give it a try Iowa! Let's abide by the law. Let's give our summers back to our students and their families. Let's continue to improve Iowa's education programs. Let's promote student achievement and performance based pay for quality teachers and let's gain the valuable workforce that our state needs. Let's allow our businesses to stay "open for business" so they can make a living and invest in their employees and communities.

Shirley Phillips President, Travel Federation of Iowa

Former School Board member/president