Sep 5, 2011

When Tourism Trumps Education

Today is Labor Day 2011—it’s relatively late this year. For a large group of students residing south of the Potomac River, the holiday represents the last full day of vacation before the traditional start of school takes over their lives.

The Fairfax County Public School system (FCPS) expects 177,629 students for the start of the 2011-12 school year—enough to make FCPS the largest district by far in Virginia and the 11th-largest in the U.S.

Arlington Public Schools are expected open with the largest enrollment since the early 1970’s—22,245. And the Alexandria City Public Schools estimate an enrollment of about 12,400.

But once again, the priorities of the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association (VHTA) trump those of Virginia’s school children by keeping the lid on legislation to move up opening day to match the earlier start dates of competing districts.

DC, local private schools, and Montgomery, Frederick, and Prince George’s counties all opened weeks ago, effectively jumpstarting the race for college-bound students to prepare for Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams later in the school year.

These students aren’t constrained by calendars extending so late into June that some summer programs, laboratory internships, and mentorship opportunities are out of the question. And they probably won’t have administrative issues with a few colleges moving early application deadlines to October or ACT’s administered four days after the start of school.

But the post-Labor Day start is so important to the tourism lobby that the VHTA lists it as number three on a list of 2011 legislative accomplishments that includes reducing health permit fees and the establishment of a tax credit for vineyards and wineries.

The theory is that keeping schools closed until Labor Day helps local 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 may presumably work until 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 that are very seldom granted. In fact, FCPS routinely adds a request to allow the county to set its own start date in the school system’s legislative package for the General Assembly and calls for a repeal of Code of Virginia Sec. 22.1-79.1.

But waivers are only 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.”

Last spring, Delegate Bill Cleaveland broadened the list with House Bill 1483, which allows a school system to open prior to Labor Day if it is “surrounded” by a neighboring district that’s opening earlier. The bill reopened the discussion but didn’t solve the problem—in northern Virginia only Loudoun County qualified for a waiver for the 2011-12 school year based on bad weather.

In recent years, VHTA has foiled as many as 10 proposals to rid Virginia of its current post-Labor Day school start date and give districts the authority to set calendars to start when they want.

And yet those most concerned with selling the College Board’s Advanced Placement product to local school districts—Jay Mathews and the Washington POST—remain strangely silent on the issue. AP’s are given to all students on the same dates in May, regardless of when their schools opened. And a late start squeezes time for transition as well as puts students at a disadvantage.

Schools evidently don’t hold a candle to the power of the state’s tourism industry. We know why the legislature won’t budge, but is it the advertising revenue that keeps the POST so quiet?

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