Sep 3, 2012

‘Kings Dominion Law’ Survives as Tourism trumps Schools

Today is Labor Day—it’s relatively early this year. And for a large group of public school students residing south of the Potomac River, the holiday represents the last full day of vacation before the traditional start of school.

But in Prince George’s County, students returned to school on August 20.  Loudon, Frederick, and Montgomery Counties as well as the District of Columbia started school on August 27.

And across the country, the story was pretty much the same.  For Atlanta and most of Georgia’s school districts, the first day of school was August 6.  Martin County in Florida began school on August 15, while students in Albuquerque, New Mexico headed back to school on August 13.

The Fairfax County Public School system (FCPS) expects 181,536 students for the start of the 2012-13 school year, enrolling 14.1 percent of all students in Virginia—enough to make FCPS the largest district by far in the Commonwealth and the 11th-largest in the U.S.

Arlington Public Schools (APS) expects to open with the largest enrollment since the early 1970’s—22,723. And the Alexandria City Public Schools estimates an enrollment of over 12,800—up 3.3 percent from year.

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.

And there are consequences.  For college-bound seniors, the late start definitely adds stress to the application process. 

The first ACT of the season is scheduled four days after the start of school.  Registration for the October 6th SAT closes on September 7, and some early application deadlines begin to come due as early as October 15.

If your guidance counselor is totally tied up with scheduling problems for the foreseeable future, you’re unlikely to get quality time to discuss college lists, testing requirements, or deadlines in the next several weeks.

And with their earlier start dates, local private schools and surrounding school districts effectively jumpstarted the race to prepare for Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams later in the school year. Their calendars align better with local 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 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.

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.” Of the 132 school divisions in Virginia, only 77 have ever been granted permission to begin classes before Labor Day.

Last winter, Governor McDonnell along with members of the Governor’s Task Force for Local Government Mandate Review supported legislation designed to remove the waiver requirement.  HB-1063, a repeal of the Kings Dominion Law, was passed by the Virginia House of Delegates in a 76-23 vote, but was eventually killed by a more tourism-friendly Senate Subcommittee.

For years, VHTA has ignored calls for reform and foiled proposals to rid Virginia of its current post-Labor Day school start date.  And those who should be standing up for the schools and who push the importance of performance on standardized tests—Jay Mathews and the Washington POST—remain strangely silent on the issue.

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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