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Tourism continues to trump education

VHTA spends thousands of dollars each year lobbying the legislature and the governor’s office to keep Virginia’s students from getting back to school too early.
VHTA spends thousands of dollars each year lobbying the legislature and the governor’s office to keep Virginia’s students from getting back to school too early.
Nancy Griesemer

Today is Labor Day. And for better or worse, the holiday arrives very early this year—the first day of the month

For most of Virginia’s public school students, Labor Day Monday represents the last full day of vacation before the official start of classes on September 2nd.

But in Prince George’s County, students returned to school on August 26. Frederick and Montgomery Counties, as well as the District of Columbia, started school on August 25.

And this was hardly exceptional. Across the country, August start dates are getting to be pretty much the norm.

For Atlanta and most of Georgia’s school districts, the first day of school was August 4. Students in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Omaha, Nebraska began school on August 13, while students in Martin County, Florida and Palm Springs, California headed back to school on August 18.

This year, the Fairfax County Public School system (FCPS) plans to welcome 186,785 students, making FCPS the largest district in the Commonwealth and the 10th-largest in the U.S.

In other parts of Virginia, Loudon County Public Schools expects an estimated 73,233 students for 2014-15. And the Arlington Public Schools estimates an enrollment of over 24,213—up 3.8 percent from last year and pushing hard on the peak baby boomer enrollments of the 1960’s.

But as in previous years, the priorities of the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association (VHTA) trump those of the Commonwealth’s school children by keeping a lid on legislation to move up opening day to match the earlier start dates of competing school districts, both here and around the country.

In its 2014 General Assembly Legislative Report, the VHTA explains, “Labor Day continues to be one of the top legislative priorities for the tourism industry.” It goes on to gloat, “During the 2014 Session, there was a 50% reduction in the amount of proposed legislation to repeal Virginia’s current laws.”

And Governor Terry McAuliffe seems to agree.

“I don’t support changing it, making it earlier to start school,” Governor McAuliffe told the Roanoke Times in January. “I’m very concerned about the tourism issue.”

Unfortunately, there are consequences to political positions that appear to favor tourism over education. And many of these consequences directly affect college-bound students.

For example, the first ACT of the season is scheduled less than two weeks after school starts. Registration for the October 11 SAT closes on September 12, complicated paperwork for at least one major science competition must be completed by September 30, and some college application deadlines come due as early as October 15.

It’s not likely that school counselors pressed with problems relating to schedules and enrollment during the first month of school are going to have time left over to discuss college lists, testing requirements, or application deadlines.

And with pre-Labor Day start dates, local private schools and school districts in Maryland have already jumpstarted the race to prepare for Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams scheduled later in the school year.

In addition, their calendars align better with local community colleges and universities for access to dual enrollment courses. And these students aren’t constrained by school years extending so late into June that some summer programs, laboratory internships, and mentorship opportunities are out of the question.

But the post-Labor Day start is so important to tourism that the VHTA spends thousands of dollars each year lobbying the legislature and the governor’s office to keep Virginia’s students from getting back to school too early.

The theory is that keeping schools closed until Labor Day helps recreational businesses, especially Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens, by giving families more time to visit amusement parks.

It also gives country clubs and tourist attractions additional weeks before they are forced to give up student workers. Unless participating in fall sports or band, high school students will hopefully work to the last day of summer or until the pool closes for the season.

Northern Virginia school systems definitely do not love the law, which may only be circumvented by state waivers granted to school systems that “have been closed an average of eight days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of severe weather conditions, energy shortages, power failure, or other emergency situations.”

Of the 132 school divisions in Virginia, only 78 have been granted permission to begin classes before Labor Day, and some of those needed special legislation to grandfather their waivers into next year.

The Virginia House passed a bill last year that would have given all school divisions permission to start classes before Labor Day. The bill received 72 votes in the House, but died in the Senate Education and Health Committee after the VHTA intervened. Delegate Greg Habeeb has introduced another version of the bill for this year, but there is little hope it will go anywhere.

And so for now, tourism will continue to trump education in the Commonwealth.