Friday, August 21, 2015

Craig Ford: A new school year is starting, but it should be starting later

  Remember when school didn’t start until after Labor Day? Over the last few weeks, students across Alabama have started a new school year – right in the middle of August. Some have even been back for two or three weeks.

  Instead of spending the last few weeks of August working summer jobs or on family vacations, teachers and students are preparing to head back to school. Why?

  It wasn’t always this way. In 2012, the Albama Legislature passed a School Start Date bill that mandated a longer summer break for our public schools. It was a bill that had broad bipartisan support. Supporters argued that extending the summer break would benefit families, students, employers, Alabama’s tourism industry and even the government.

  But then the legislature failed to renew it, and the state did not get to feel the maximum benefits of the law.

  Shortening summer vacation to only two months hurts Alabama families. Kids no longer get to spend August playing unencumbered, going to camp, or doing some last minute reading. Families miss out on important, quality vacation time together... and with a son in college and a daughter starting her senior year of high school, I can tell you those family vacations are precious while they last!

  For teachers and other educators, the summer months are the only time they can do any professional development work, such as taking classes for an advanced degree or participating in training programs that help them learn more effective methods for teaching various subjects.

  Older students, and even some teachers, use those summer months to work summer jobs that help them learn important skills and make some extra money that some families rely on. A study by the Association of American Educators revealed one in five teachers works a second job.

  An Alabama teacher I spoke with said if he had a full summer to work he wouldn’t need to moonlight during the school year and could totally focus on his classroom. A longer summer vacation would provide students and teachers a greater opportunity to earn money during the summer and reduce the amount of work they need during the school year, allowing school to be their main concern.

  The latest report shows that pushing back the school start date would generate an estimated $300 million annually in additional revenue and create about 4,500 full-time jobs across the state. More money spent in Alabama means more money to better fund public education.

  A shorter summer break is hurting education by depriving schools of funding they would otherwise be getting, and it's hurting Alabama economically by cutting into the business our tourism industry is losing in the month of August.

  On top of that, the state of Alabama also has to spend more money when school starts in early to mid-August. Part of that is due to higher air conditioning bills. Many schools turn their air conditioners off or set them on a higher temperature during the summer, which they obviously can’t do once students and educators return to school. And because it is hotter in August than it is in September, the cost of air conditioning school buildings is higher, which you, the taxpayer, has to pay for. Additionally, starting school earlier increases other expenditures, such as gas and maintenance for school buses, that we otherwise wouldn’t be spending.

  But what about the argument that starting school earlier improves academic performance?

  According to former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott, “Early start dates do not translate into academic excellence.” In an opinion piece printed in numerous Texas papers Scott said, “academic excellence is a combination of four factors: sound public policy, talented teachers, involved parents and motivated students. Perhaps it’s time to stop debating issues that don’t add value to our children’s education and start focusing on the right services and resources for students and teachers.”

  I couldn’t agree more. When the Flexible School Calendar Act of 2012 was passed it focused on what was best for students and teachers. The act pushed back the school year to late-August and offered a twelve-week summer vacation. The bill was supported by teachers and parents alike. It didn’t force schools to start at a particular time, but it did guarantee a full summer break. Unfortunately, it wasn’t reauthorized by the Alabama Legislature.

  So as everyone heads back to a school this month, I wish you all luck. May this be a great year to be a student in Alabama! My hope is that this time next year, our students are enjoying a longer, fuller summer if the legislature will renew the Flexible School Calendar Act.

  About the author: Representative Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.

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