By Taylor DeVille and Alicia Reynolds
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
Baltimore area legislators, educators and parents have been critical of Gov. Larry Hogan’s controversial executive order that would force most school systems in Maryland to start after Labor Day and finish before June 15, 2017.
In a series of telephone and e-mail interviews conducted over the past two weeks, local officials said the Republican governor’s order is designed more to help the state’s tourism industry than to help children get a better education.
In addition, those who were interviewed said the order can have adverse effects on city school children who rely heavily on their schools for healthy meals.
“It’s a very short-sighted, politically-driven initiative,” said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore. “We should be focused on outcomes for kids, not revenue for the tourism industry.”
Ferguson said Virginia’s 1986 “King’s Dominion law” is an example of the drawbacks of a post-Labor Day school year. According to the Washingtonian, the law prohibits Virginia schools from starting before Labor Day to generate tourism in the state’s theme parks, namely King’s Dominion and Busch Gardens.
Ferguson said that passing the law had not brought in the revenue that Virginia lawmakers expected, although there is no available information to support his position.
The Board of Fairfax County school system recently voted to shift the start of the school year before Labor Day effective in 2017 due to the high number of snow days impeding students’ education, according to the Washington Post.
The governor issued an executive order that said the re-scheduling of the start date until after Labor Day would not only be a family issue, but also an economic and public safety issue that draws support from an overwhelming majority of Marylanders.
Although a bipartisan task force assembled by former Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2014 voted 12 to 3 in favor of a post-Labor Day school year, Democrats in the General Assembly have generally opposed it because they believe the order is prioritizing business interests above the needs of students.
The governor’s executive order is supported by the tourism industry, including the Maryland State Fair and businesses in Ocean City. Comptroller Peter Franchot began advocating for a post-Labor Day start in 2012. Hogan offered his support shortly after taking office in 2014.
The Maryland Bureau of Revenue Estimates stated that an extra $74.3 million “in direct economic activity” and an additional $7.7 million in new tax revenue could be generated after the post-Labor Day start. About $32 million is estimated to come from in-state tourism after the order is in effect.
Some opponents to the order believe that Baltimore city students, who rely on the food and enrichment programs offered at school, will be the most adversely affected without access to those programs.
“It will shorten classroom instruction time needed for standardized test preparation and affect those kids who depend on schools for meals and a safe environment from everyday challenges,” Deborah Demery, the president of the Baltimore City PTA Council, said in an email. “The majority of kids in Baltimore City and their parents will not be spending their vacation at the shore.”
A 2015 study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University Professor James McMillan found that there is no correlation between a school system’s start date and student achievement as measured by Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.
However, Johns Hopkins University Professor Karl Alexander’s research shows that two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap between lower-income Baltimore students and their advantaged peers in other parts of the state can be explained by summer learning loss.
The majority of school district students (including Baltimore) could have seven extra days of summer, compared to when each district started during the 2014-2015 academic year. Some counties that have previously started school around mid-August, like Frederick and Prince George’s, would have as many as 14 extra days.
“We’re trying to reduce student learning loss, which many students struggle with in urban areas,” said Alison Perkins-Cohen, the chief of staff to Dr. Sonja Santelises, the city school system’s chief executive officer. “If anything, we want to reduce the time [out of school].”
John Foley, secondary education professor at Towson University, disagreed with school officials that the mandate will greatly affect students.
“We’re talking about five or six [extra] days,” Foley said. “I don’t think that’ll have a negative impact on students. In fact, it might have a positive impact, given the fact that during the 180 day school year, there won’t be any gaps.”
Although a 2015 Goucher College poll showed that 72 percent of Marylanders support a post-Labor Day start, educators who have advocated against the governor’s order are concerned about the holidays and professional days that will need to be cut to complete school in the state-mandated 180 days.
“Teachers, too, want breaks throughout the school year to get a chance to recharge,” Perkins-Cohen said. “The challenge will be making difficult choices about breaks, like Spring Break.”
While Baltimore City schools haven’t begun to adjust their calendars, Perkins-Cohen said they will probably create two: one accounting for the mandate and one that does not.
Baltimore County School Superintendent S. Dallas Dance would not make himself available for an interview. But the public school system released a statement saying that “Baltimore County Public Schools will comply with State Law. The new mandated start and end dates requires us to go back to our Stakeholder Calendar Committee and the Board of Education to consider all options to identify ways to meet the required instructional time for school systems.”
Emory Young, the president of the Baltimore County PTA Council, said the reactions from parents have been mixed. Young said that some parents are in favor of the later start date while other parents realize it’s shortening the school calendar and question how the school system will meet the 180 days that has been mandated.
Maryland school systems will need to adjust their calendars to add around five to 10 days of classes to finish by June 15. School boards must approve plans by late October or early November, according to the Baltimore Sun.
“I’m hopeful that the state board will create a loose waiver process that will allow districts to apply for a waiver,” Ferguson said. “If the state board creates a waiver, I’m not sure we have to take much action. The 23 or 24 districts that choose to start before Labor Day will continue to do so.”
The State Board of Education voted unanimously on Sept. 27 to inform school districts that they will expedite their requests for waivers. Hogan’s office stated that the board is not allowed to approve waivers until formal regulations of the order are in effect, the Washington Post reported.
Some officials question Hogan’s authority to issue the mandate at all.
“The attorney general is responsible for the legality of it,” said Del. Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County. “The question is, should Hogan be able to control legal jurisdiction.”
Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, said she does not think it is in the governor’s jurisdiction. She said that these decisions are best made by those closest to the students, whose circumstances are different in every part of the state.
“[The bill] hasn’t moved in legislature because educators have said that they believe mandating a change doesn’t respect the on-the-ground, local concerns that jurisdictions take into account,” Ferguson said.
School officials are waiting to see if the governor’s order will meet opposition from the Democrat-controlled General Assembly during the legislative session in January.