Washington School District

A Missouri lawmaker, whose district is near the Lake of the Ozarks, wants to bar public schools from starting classes before late August.

The proposal by Rep. Jeff Knight, R-Lebanon, would set the starting date no earlier than 14 days before the first Monday in September.

Knight said earlier school start dates are affecting the tourism industry as more families end their summer vacations in early August.

Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer said she firmly believes that local school boards and the leadership they employ are capable of making good decisions when it comes to their school calendars.

“We should not form a law that dictates what is appropriate for all,” VanLeer told The Missourian. “The state requires so many hours of attendance per year, so school districts can decide when to start and end their school year.”

A later start means students will be in school in June, she pointed out.

“I am sure if that were the case, it would impact summer school options, and the MAP testing window in the spring would get pushed back to even later in the year,” she said. “This is why we try to make the best calendar decisions possible each year. We try to balance the number of days in each semester, finishing first semester before Christmas, and we try to accommodate the required testing window and other program needs and desires.”

VanLeer said each school district’s calendar committee, administration and board of education factor all of these variables and approve calendars that work best for their community.

“This is how it should stay, because we each have our own unique issues and desires,” she said.

The superintendent also said anyone who has ever worked in schools, knows spring fever is a real thing.

“So, those who argue mid-August is too early, should argue that June is too late,” she said. “You can’t have it both ways. The conversation needs to be about educating kids, progressing our state forward from a workforce development standpoint, and not calendars. This item should remain in local control.”

In the coming school year, most Franklin County and St. Louis area school districts are set to start in mid-August.

The measure, House Bill 161, faces a potential hurdle in the Senate after it squeaked out of the House with just four votes to spare.

Knight told members of the Senate Education Committee Tuesday that tourism is very significant in Missouri.

He argued that the change could give tourism-related businesses one more summer weekend to make money.

Among those favoring the prohibition were amusement park operators and lobby groups representing hotel owners, campground owners and river outfitters.

However, Mike Reid of the Missouri School Boards’ Association said the decision should be made by locally elected public school board members.

“What happens in Poplar Bluff is going to be different than in Kansas City,” Reid said.

Others opposed to the change include the Missouri National Education Association, the Missouri State Teachers Association and the School Administrators Coalition.

Many school officials favor an earlier start for the reasons VanLeer mentioned — finishing a semester and squeezing in final exams before winter break, and allowing more learning to take place before standardized tests are given in the spring.

The school calendar has been a hot-button issue for educators, students, parents and business owners for decades.

The law was last altered in 2006, when lawmakers approved a plan that would give school districts the power to set their calendars, as long as they hold a public hearing.

That followed a 1992 law allowing urban and suburban districts to open before Labor Day. Previously, only rural districts were allowed to start before the holiday.

In 1983, lawmakers also debated legislation prohibiting public schools from opening until after Labor Day because of concerns about hurting tourism in the state.