The North Carolina General Assembly is back in session, with its biggest task being crafting a budget for fiscal years 2019-20. This will involve compromise, as it always does, with the legislature and the governor having different spending priorities between Democrats and Republicans and among legislators of the same political stripes. As is true in so much of political decision-making, one person’s must-have is often another’s boondoggle.
One reality is certain. Education — public schools, community colleges and universities — will gobble up more than half of state spending, garnering $13.5 billion of the current $23 billion state budget. Expect plenty of controversy as education spending is decided.
The Cumberland County Board of Education plans to ask legislators for a change that does not involve state allocations. Our local school board, along with many others across the state, want more flexibility in setting school calendars. They should all have it.
Until 2004, local schools set their calendars to suit local conditions. Western counties, for example, typically built in more snow days. School boards established teacher work days and holidays as recommended by administrators.
Local calendar control changed when legislators bowed to the will of North Carolina’s tourism industry and set hard start- and stop-dates for all state public schools. Tourism interests in both mountain and coastal areas demanded that children have longer summer breaks so families could vacation longer, and the General Assembly acquiesced.
It was a reprehensible kowtow to business interests over the interests of North Carolina’s school children. Changes have been made over the last decade and a half, but flexibility is still granted and taken away by legislators, not on-the-ground education officials who understand the needs of their communities.
There are all sorts of good reasons to return calendar flexibility to local schools.
These include the reality that students in most other developed nations have longer school days and longer school years than we do in North Carolina. It is therefore no surprise that students in many of those nations outpace our students.
Flexibility would also allow more opportunity to align public school calendars to community college calendars, meaning that high school students could take more community college courses. This could give high schoolers a leg up in whatever higher education or career they pursue.
Both parents and educators attest to the reality of summer learning loss. Schools have to begin the school year with several weeks of review that takes time away from learning new material. This is a phenomenon that disproportionally affects minority and low-income students, increasing educational disparities. Research shows that shorter times away from school work to reverse disparities.
Generations ago, school calendars followed agricultural
cycles. Children were needed to work in the
fields, so school was in session during slow growing
months. Today, only a small percentage of North
Carolinians make our livings working in the fields,
and child labor is prohibited in most instances.
There is no longer a reason for school calendars to
accommodate agricultural cycles.
Overlying all arguments is Mother Nature. The school year in Murphy is likely very different from the school year in Manteo. The mountains must contend with snowy weather while coastal areas face hurricanes. Students in Pender County were out of school for six weeks after Hurricane Florence blew thought last fall. While that was unusual, coastal school systems need the flexibility to deal with increasingly severe storms.
The General Assembly will deal with many school issues this session. Bills have already been filed to increase school safety through various grants, provide statewide mental health screenings for students and require teaching civic responsibility and good citizenship. All of these would require local or state expenditures, perhaps both.
Returning school calendars to local school boards costs only the tax dollars local communities choose to invest. It gives control back to local decision makers, not legislators from hundreds of miles away who very likely have never set foot in our community. It puts our children before the profits of private companies.
It is time — past time — to do just that.