Schools still can’t open before Labor Day

At the start of the 2012 legislative session, momentum was building for the General Assembly to repeal Virginia’s so-called “Kings Dominion law,” which prohibits public schools from opening before Labor Day without special permission.

Legislators had filed 13 bills to rescind the law and let local school boards decide when classes would start. Even Gov. Bob McDonnell weighed in, saying the current restrictions should be lifted.

But by the session’s end, each of those bills had died. And so the law nicknamed after the theme park in Hanover County remains in place: Public schools cannot open before Labor Day unless they obtain a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education.

The final nail in the coffin came on March 1, when the Senate Education and Health Committee took up House Bill 1063, sponsored by Delegate Robert Tata, R-Virginia Beach. The measure, which had been approved 76-23 by the House, would have allowed school divisions to choose their own opening dates.

On a 6-9 vote, the committee defeated the bill. That might have been expected: A month earlier, the committee rejected a similar Senate proposal.

The General Assembly adopted the Labor Day law in 1986 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. The law became permanent two years later.

Sen. Richard Saslaw, a Springfield Democrat and member of the committee, said he co-sponsored the first attempt to repeal the law shortly after its enactment.

“Every year since then, there’s been a bill put in to repeal this,” Saslaw said. “Every year the bill fails.”

Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a co-sponsor of HB 1063, said she thought the bill had a 50-50 chance in the Senate committee.

She said the measure 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.

Opponents of HB 1063 included Sanford Wanner, who chairs the Historic Triangle Collaborative, which promotes economic development in Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. He testified before the Senate committee on behalf of Virginia’s tourism industry.

“We are not aware of compelling evidence that opening before Labor Day in Virginia improves student performance when compared to opening after Labor Day, the traditional end of summer,” he said. “The state and local tax revenues generated by the tourism economy helps to fuel the state and local government budgets, as well as the school budgets.”

Some local government officials, such as Hanover County Supervisor Angela Kelly-Wiecek, also argued for keeping the Labor Day law.

“We need a consistent and dependable tourism season,” Kelly-Wiecek said. “It provides an infusion, an injection of revenue to cash-strapped localities at a time when we’re facing catastrophic declines in revenue.”

Virginia Beach City Council Member Rosemary Wilson said schools there face a $37 million budget shortfall.

“One of the bright stars that we’ve had is our tourism. Our hotel taxes have been up better than they ever have,” Wilson said. “We cannot take those revenues away; our schools need those revenues.”

Proponents of HB 1063 disputed the tourism industry’s claims and argued that the Labor Day law infringed on the authority of local government.

Dana Raphael, a junior at Arlington High School, said one study cited by Virginia’s tourism industry was based on a 2004 survey of 1,234 Tennessee residents.

“If I used this kind of methodology in one of my research papers, I would receive an F,” Raphael said. “What’s right for Arlington County may not be right for Galax, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Chesterfield or Lynchburg, but each locality should get to decide what’s best their students, teachers, families and the larger community. Students must come first.”

Anne Carson, president of the Virginia Parent-Teachers Association, said Virginia parents do not all agree on when the school calendar should begin.

“What [parents] do agree on is that they want the opportunity to decide and advocate what is best for their schedules and communities,” Carson said. “The educational system should not be pushed aside by the private enterprises that seemingly still have thrived in countless other states where schools start in August.”

But Sen. Jeffery McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, a member of the Senate committee, fears that school divisions would mishandle the decision-making power.

“If given the option, I think the school boards will make the decision that would hurt business, would hurt development, and would hurt tourism in a time when we can least afford that,” said McWaters, who voted against HB 1063.

Under the existing law, schools can start before Labor Day if they must frequently close because of inclement weather. Seventy-seven of Virginia’s 132 school divisions received such waivers for this school year. Most of them are in the more rural, less populated western half of Virginia.

The largest school divisions in the Richmond area, Tidewater and Northern Virginia do not qualify for waivers.

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