Here is a lesson in public education and politics in North Carolina. Late last week, a news report from one part of the state started being noticed elsewhere. It would appear that buried in the 187 pages of the NC Senate’s version of the budget (a bill that was whisked through committee and floor votes in a matter of days) was a definition that would eliminate year-round schools that operate on a single track as opposed to a multiple tracks effective for the 2016-17 school year. For schools that start in mid-July, that provides families and schools less than a month’s notice to rearrange work and childcare arrangements, change bus routes, rearrange staffing, etc. There are dozens of single-track, year-round schools in the state. In my district at least, year-round is a choice option for families and they enter a lottery to be placed in those schools. Many families prefer the year round option and some research suggest that all students can benefit academically from the schedule; specifically economically disadvantaged students and some students with disabilities show the most benefit.
Strangely, the same GOP lawmakers who espouse school choice, less government, and more local control have snuck in language that will eliminate these school choice options for families and override the decisions of local elected school boards. Those of us in single-track, year-round schools in the state were left puzzled. Where did this language come from? What is going on? UPDATE: In an news article from a local TV station, appears that everyone is struggling to find where the language came from. “It’s been like cockroaches when the lights come on,” according to one local lawmaker. Fingers have eventually pointed to Senator Tom Apodaca, who claimed that the lobby group Save Our Summers came to him and requested it. A spokesperson for Save Our Summers says it is not true. Logic would tell us one of those two people is lying. So bottom line, 21 school districts in the state impacted and no clear indication of where the language came from. Welcome to what we call “governing” in NC these days.
Well, I have read enough Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown in my life to take a stab at this. The first clue is the use of the terms multi-track and single-track. Wake County is the primary district that uses a multi-track system to reduce overcrowding in their schools. The new story also included this quote: “According to Senator Michael Lee, the language in the budget was not intended to impact New Hanover County Schools, but address another issue in another part of the state.” Hmm…so the language in the bill was clearly intended to target only one school district. Well, a quick Google search provides us with this news report. I am no Sherlock Holmes, but those dots seem to connect.
Apparently Wake County Public Schools wanted to explore the option of moving some low performing elementary schools with large percentages of disadvantaged students to a year-round schedule. This would allow for focused remediation or enrichment during intersession, common time for staff training, and breaks to reduce student and staff fatigue; in addition to the research supported benefits of a shorter summer break. In other words, practices that benefit students academically. After surveying parents and finding that in 7 of 8 schools, less than half of the parents said they would stay at the school if the calendar changed, Wake County School Board decided to only move the one school that demonstrated overwhelming parent support to the year-round schedule. From the news report it appears that no families would be forced onto the new schedule, they would be able to change to another nearby school that was still on a traditional schedule.
Sounds like basic good management. Come up with a research-backed proposal and then get feedback from stakeholders. When stakeholders did not respond positively, the School Board did not approve the proposal and are now considering other solutions. Of course, the only information I have is the news report, so there are lots of nuance to this that I may be missing. Regardless, it doesn’t seem like an overreach worthy of interference on the part of our state legislature. Now we are in a position where a small group of parents in one district who are displeased that the school board would even consider such a policy, apparently have the right connections to shut down every single-track, year-round school in the state. It is important to note that the Wake County School Board made the decision to not change the calendars on May 17th, while the budget bill was still behind closed doors. The language was clearly not designed to address the immediate issue, but to prevent the board from exploring the option in the future.
The worst part is this is déjà vu all over again. The bill in question amends NC G.S. 115C-84.2, commonly referred to as the NC school calendar law originally passed in 2004. This law too was the result of a group of well connected families in one NC district that were unhappy with the early August start dates for school. Unfortunately, a majority of parents in their district preferred the early August to May calendar instead of a late August to June calendar. In further validation of the policies, the community reelected the school board members. Unhappy that they did not get their way, these parents teamed up with the coastal tourism lobby and some powerful politicians and suddenly we had a state law mandating school could not start before August 25th and must end by June 10th. A few disgruntled parents succeed in disenfranchising every elected school board in our state and limited their ability provide students with calendars that maximize learning. (For fairness sake, I must point out that this law was passed by a Democrat controlled legislature—you know the party that “supports public schools”). Despite perennial bills to change the law or add various loopholes and lots of vocal complaints about the lack of local control, the law still stands with only a few tweaks.
As chair of my school’s Site Based Decision Making Committee at the time, I was engaged in a lot of the debate and discussion of the original 2004 bill including attending legislative comment sessions. Our high school opposed the proposed law as it would place finals for first semester classes after winter break–clearly not ideal to ensure that students did their best on the test. I was shocked that so many fanatical parents who somehow perceived a long summer vacation as both a constitutional right and a family values issue (it might have been somewhere in the fine print of those tablets Moses brought back down the mountain to0). There were also clear regional tensions as early August to May calendar was traditional in the South whereas transplants from the North and Mid-West were not used to starting school until after Labor Day. Without fail, parents framed the discussion around what they perceived to be best for their family, not what is best for learning for either their child or other students.
For the past three years, I have worked at a year-round, 6-12 school. I love it. Long time year-round teachers will tell you that all students, families, and staff that actually try year-round also love it. No one ever wants to go back to traditional. It keeps kids and adults from burning out. It creates large blocks of family time throughout the year. In areas where year-round schedules are common, there are plenty of camps and other enrichment experiences available during intersession breaks. The beach is lovely in late September too (though I have not spent a dime on my own coast since the school calendar law was passed nor the coasts of VA and SC that have similar laws).
While lawmakers are assuring their constituents that the language will be fixed as it was not intended to impact year-round schools in other districts, the larger principle here is that a state budget bill never should have contained language designed to interfere in the work of a local elected school board. It is also sloppy lawmaking. How much intern research time would it have taken to realize that the language would impact dozens of schools across the state? Why is legislation in our state being written behind closed doors and without public input (that could have easily pointed out the problem with the language before it made it to primetime)? Why do the same lawmakers that demand rigid and harsh accountability for our public schools routinely disenfranchise the local policy makers who are trying to use research based strategies to improve student achievement? Functional accountability necessitates functional autonomy, a lesson that we are currently failing to learn at all levels of education policy.