Friday, May 13, 2005

Don't Mess with Our Calendar

The Texas Legislature has pulled a fast one on us. On Wednesday, in the middle of a huge debate on school finance reform, a state Senator managed to sneak an amendment into the bill that would force all Texas school districts to start school after Labor Day and end by June 7. This is, of course, radically different from current law, which lets districts set their own calendars, so long as it's not before the week of August 21 (and even this can be altered by seeking a waiver from the state).

Many people aren't happy about this, and the apparent reason behind the bill doesn't come from a good place at all:
School districts hate it, and parents are lukewarm. So why are Texas lawmakers pushing for all schools to start classes the day after Labor Day?

One major reason: The tourism industry loves it.

"This is a big win for families who want to vacation late in the summer," said Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Democrat who pushed for the later start. "It is also a big win for business in general all over the state, especially in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, South Padre Island and resort areas where they depend on tourism." (source)
So let me get this straight: Lawmakers are going to destroy one of the most important elements of local school district control, and mess with a lot of students' lives, just so Six Flags can keep longer hours for two or three more weeks?

There are several reasons why this is a really, really bad idea:
  • Fewer holidays. I haven't actualy seen a proposed calendar under these parameters, but district officials have been saying all along that it would force holidays--and I don't just mean the fluffy ones like Fair Day, but things like spring and winter breaks--to be severely curtailed. Sure, the so-called "real world" doesn't have all these holidays, but remember, we're talking about kids as young as kindergartners here. They need a break every now and then.

  • The discrepancy with colleges would be even worse. My college let out today; my public schools won't do so for three more weeks. If this bill becomes law, it will be more like a month between the ends of the college and public-school semesters. For families who have offspring in both places, this could make vacation-planning a nightmare. But even worse than that, imagine the poor teachers who need to take summer college coursework to finish a master's degree or do personal enrichment courses. Most college summer sessions start the week of June 6 this year; if school didn't let out until a day after that, how are the teachers supposed to take these classes?

  • Local control is important. Building the academic calendar is one of the most unique things a school district does, and they will do it better than some centralized "home office" (which is what the Legislature, by doing this power grab, is trying to become) could ever dream of doing. The calendar committee in each district is composed of people who have been around for a while and know what works best for them; it might not be the same things that work best for another nearby district. Besides, most things get messed up when big government takes control, and this would undoubtedly be no exception.

  • We don't need 3 a.m. graduations. It sure seems like the supporters of this bill didn't give one nanosecond of thought to how all 1,037 school districts in Texas are supposed to hold graduation ceremonies at the same time. In the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex, nearly everyone uses either the UNT Coliseum or Moody Coliseum at SMU (the really big schools use Reunion Arena). The only reason this works is because the districts' ending dates are staggered across a two- to three-week period. If you start making everyone do it at once, the facilities won't be available; even the new venue out in my part of town would only partially relieve the glut of ceremonies that would be forced to happen practically on top of one another.

  • First-semester exams after Christmas? Ack! This is the kicker. By starting school after Labor Day, it becomes physically impossible (even with fewer holidays) to complete an eighteen-week fall semester before Christmas. Anyone in the Lege who doesn't realize what a mistake this is has 1) never taught school, and 2) forgotten what it's like to be in school. Delaying the end of the semester into the next calendar year means that a great deal of time will be wasted after Christmas break doing review sessions. The year is broken in half rather nicely for a reason, and the lawmakers are messing with this just because some amusement park operators did some hardcore lobbying (just wait till later, when I do my post on how lobbying should be outlawed). This shows a shameful misplacement of priorities, and it's just not right.

I think I may be prompted to write my state senator and representative for the very first time because of this (OK, it'll be an email, but still, it's written communication). I would suggest that anyone else in Texas who doesn't like this idea should do the same.

Musing on music: I finally got caught up on some blog-reading today, and I noticed a post from Eric about covering songs from other artists; he asked if his fellow musicians thought this was a good thing or a bad thing. My response in the comments points out that in jazz, covers are called standards, and we play them all the time.


Kev said...

You'll get no argument from me about there being too many staff-development days. It sounds like your district overdoes it more than ours does; I can only remember about four such days all year over here.

"Back in my day, school started the Tuesday after Labor Day and ended the Friday before Memorial Day."

Yeah, but there was also a small number of required days for the school year back then. That's the problem--it just doesn't fit into those parameters anymore.

We haven't had a week at Thanksgiving ever since the not-before-August 21 start date was instituted, and it's been eons since Presidents' Day was a day off. Our fall break (your Week Just Because) has never been more than two days, and one of them is Fair Day.

You make a lot of valid points here, but I think that being able to finish the fall semester before Christmas trumps everything else. Colleges can fit their sixteen-week semesters in if they start in very late August, but public schools need the two extra weeks.

(And yes, I do have a dog in this hunt, because our high school solo and ensemble contest is the first weekend in February. It's really hard to suddenly have a whole week, right before the contest, nearly gutted by the schools being on exam schedule.)

But ultimately, it's about the students: it's a big waste of time to have to review everything again after Christmas. Let's just get it done beforehand and start anew in the spring.

Anonymous said...

My freshman year of HS was crazy. We got out for the summer early, and then started later than everyone else because we had to wait for the school's construction to be finished. That year we had very little breaks, and our 1st semester exams were after the holiday vacation. They cut the next summer short so the district could get back on the old schedule. It made everyone a lot happier.