School in August Gets Low Grades

School in August Gets Low Grades

A Move by Some Districts to Reopen Before Labor
Day Is Angering Parents, Students and Businesses


Early this month, as her cousins in Michigan spent their summer vacation splashing in area lakes, 11-year-old Ryan Duffin sat learning about the Great Lakes in social-studies class at Richview Middle School in Clarksville, Tenn.

“I could be enjoying my summer, but I’m stuck in class,” Ryan complained. “I hate it.”

Ryan is one of hundreds of thousands of students whose summer breaks ended early this year as schools from Toppenish, Wash., to Kettering, Ohio, to Harrisburg, Pa., have bucked a long—but waning—tradition of starting classes after Labor Day.

In Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest district, the first school bell rang for 600,000 students on Aug. 14, three weeks earlier than the normal start. In Chicago, more than a third of the district’s 675 schools opened Aug. 13, part of a year-round schooling effort that spreads out the school calendar with shorter summer and winter breaks.

Proponents say the August start dates allow more instruction time before students take mandatory state achievement tests and Advanced Placement and college-entrance exams. John Deasy, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, said the new calendar lets students wrap up finals before the three-week winter break and gives high-school students more time to complete college applications. “This was a purely academic decision for us,” he said.

But opponents—including tourism groups and many parents—grumble the August school bell ruins summer vacations and punishes businesses that thrive during the summer months.

Ryan’s mother, Carol Duffin, was so angered by the early start—which she says has been creeping earlier in her district for years—she launched “Save Tennessee Summers” seven years ago and lobbied state lawmakers unsuccessfully for legislation barring a pre-Labor Day first bell. She “cringed,” she said, as she visited a Wal-Mart store around July 4th this year and saw school supplies on display.

“We are just wiping the barbecue sauce off our mouths and I am seeing pencil and pens and glue sticks,” she said.

The typical U.S. school year runs about 180 days, and the start and end dates are set by states or school districts. Many schools, especially in the North, generally open after Labor Day and wrap up in June. Others, particularly in the South, start in mid-August and end in mid-May, a relic of the agrarian calendar that ensured students were out of school in time for the spring planting season.

In the past decade, testing has become more important, thanks in part to requirements in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Law—used to evaluate students, close low-achieving schools and fire underperforming teachers. Many schools have pushed up the start date to provide more instructional time in hopes it will improve test performance.

Miya Clay, a 6th grader at low-income Dulles School of Excellence in Chicago, started school Monday—the earliest she has even been in class—but she was happy to be there. “It gives me a chance to read lots of books and more time to learn” before taking the state math and reading exams in the spring, she said.

Little research exists on whether earlier starts boost achievement. Some experts say lengthening the school year is more important, because there is ample evidence that some students, especially those who are low-income, suffer setbacks in their learning from being out of school during the long summer vacation. But the current moves by schools to start earlier don’t affect the number of days of instruction, which are generally set in teacher contracts.

The U.S. school calendar is unusual, with students typically attending school for 36 weeks, two weeks less than the average for industrialized countries.

In Los Angeles, an earlier start date caused concern among some teachers, parents and students. Ingrid Fey, a social-studies teacher at the Academic Leadership Community High School in South Los Angeles, said the change is an academic boon for her students. But as a parent, she sees the downside: Her 14-year-old son’s baseball team has a tournament in Utah next week. She decided to let him skip school and worked with his teacher to send him daily lessons. “I feel uneasy about that decision, but I also know the baseball trip can be a great learning experience,” she said.

Tina Bruno, who runs The Coalition for a Traditional School Year, a nonprofit group in San Antonio, Texas, that lobbies against early start dates, said she has fielded scores of calls from parents fighting pre-Labor Day resumption. “Now, we’re seeing the backlash,” she said.

This year, Alabama and Mississippi passed laws barring schools from opening before the end of August. In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad created a task force to study the issue. Iowa law dictates school cannot start before the first week of September, but more than 90% of districts have state waivers that let them open earlier.

Shirley Phillips, the recent president of the Travel Federation of Iowa, which lobbies on behalf of tourism firms and sits on the task force, said a post-Labor Day start helps firms, such as campgrounds and aquatic centers, that thrive in summer. For every day school starts early, businesses in Okoboji, on the shore of Okoboji Lake, lose $1 million in revenue, she said.

“When school starts early, it shuts down businesses and these are the same businesses that pay school taxes,” she said.


The Two Problems With the New Push for Vouchers

The Two Problems With the New Push for Vouchers

by Roy Speckhardt

America’s educational system isn’t what it used to be. Our country was once known around the world for its stellar schools and teachers, which is part of the reason why so many people immigrated to this country in the first place. But after decades of budget cuts and lax regulation, the bulk of our nation’s school system now leaves much to be desired.

Legislators and parents alike are grasping for solutions to this problem, with some unfortunately coming to the conclusion that vouchers are the best way to reform and improve our educational system. The first critical shortcoming of voucher programs is that they divert scarce public funds to help a small group of students at the expense of other students, who must then try to continue in schools that now have even less money with which to try and provide a quality education. The second central drawback of vouchers is that they often are used to fund religious education, and that situation results in taxpayer dollars being inappropriately filtered into indoctrinating kids in one brand of religion. And on top of that, such religious schools aren’t subject to the same regulations that public schools face, which is why some fall far below public schools in terms of safety and performance.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal recently pushed for a voucher program that would allow state funds to be used to pay for religious schools. While taxpayer funding of religious schools should be unconstitutional and is bad public policy, Gov. Jindal’s overhaul of the state’s education system was still approved by the state legislature. Everything was fine until one of the state representatives that voted for the bill, Rep. Valarie Hodges, discovered that the new law might include taxpayer support of Muslim schools.

Hodges says that she supports “government funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools.” Now Hodges says “we need to insure that it does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools. There are a thousand Muslim schools that have sprung up recently. I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”

These statements reveal Hodges’ prejudice against the millions of non-Christian Americans and they also give us some important insight into the minds of those who want vouchers. It’s not that they want education alternatives for kids; it’s not even that they want a religious education for kids. What they really want is Christian-only education, and probably a very conservative version of Christianity at that.

So what type of Christian lessons does Ms. Hodges want taught in our nation’s schools? Look no further than a Christian curriculum taught by private schools in her own state of Louisiana. This program, the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, states that the continued existence of the Loch Ness monster proves that evolution is false. This program teaches that “apartheid was beneficial to South Africa as segregated schools meant different heritages could be passed on to children.” It also teaches that there is unquestionable proof for creationism.

This program, like most religious curriculum, poses a serious threat to our nation’s educational system and to current and future students. When schoolchildren are taught religious dogma instead of a credible academic program, their ability to function in the real world and compete for jobs is drastically diminished. Religious teachings should not come at the expense of things like science education, mathematics, English literature, and history, which should always be taught based on our best knowledge of them at the time.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Hodges isn’t alone in her effort to starve public schools of their funding and indoctrinate our children with religious ideas. States across the country already have voucher programs, and many more are trying to get them. While states such as Oklahoma and Pennsylvania already learned through court rulings that voucher programs and taxpayer funding of religious schools is unconstitutional, it’s likely that other states won’t listen until they too are challenged in court.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can avoid the costly taxpayer-funded court battles over religion and religious teachings if we simply honored the Constitution and kept religion and government separated. A parent can ensure that their child gets all the religious instruction they want by attending services, partaking in weekend religious education programs, or through participation in religious youth outreach groups. But parents should know that school time is for learning about the world we all inhabit, and not merely yet another time to talk about religion.