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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Labor Day Showdown in the Free State

This week, Governor Hogan issued an executive order mandating that the Maryland school year begin after Labor Day and end no later than June 15th. The motivation for the post Labor Day start being the desire to generate a little additional revenue from family vacations to Ocean City prior to the start of the school year. Estimates are that the revised start date could generate up to $74 million in economic activity. This is not a new issue in Maryland and multitude of other states have grappled with the Labor Day question as well. The MD General Assembly created a task force back in 2013 to study the issue and that task force recommended adopting the post Labor Day start date, but their recommendation had no authority. 

The task force report noted:
"All 24 local school system superintendents, the State Superintendent, union representatives, the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, and the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland are opposed to a post-Labor Day start date."
The task force was not moved by that universal opposition, noting instead that "there was no compelling evidence that showed there was any impact on education starting post-Labor Day..." and "there was no quantifiable evidence that a post-Labor Day start is harmful to local schools systems."  

The post Labor Day start has been a favorite of Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot and was endorsed by former Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley. But given opposition by local school systems and the Maryland State Education Association, the Maryland General Assembly was not willing to impose the mandated start date.

So Hogan decided to just do it himself - and the political reaction was predictable and in some cases utterly ridiculous. The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board led the charge against Hogan in an over the top editorial suggestion that nothing less than the future of Maryland's education system was put at risk by shifting roughly 10 days in school calendars. I've been told that one opponent to the plan criticized it by suggesting that the delayed start would deny low income children access to the school lunch program - only to be reminded that the mandate didn't reduce the 180 school day requirement, thereby leaving access to the lunch program unchanged.

Admittedly, I am one of those folks who support year round education (the 2014 task force report noted significant support throughout the state). Year round schooling eliminates the information loss that occurs over summer, it provides improved access to nutritious meals, and it reduces childcare costs. But there's no chance that year round schooling will become law in Maryland so I'll stick with what is in the realm of possibility. As a matter of policy, the post Labor Day start has considerable merit - there is evidence of an economic benefit, a state task force found no evidence that it's harmful to education or local schools, and there are more sources of child care available during the established summer break than there are during the school year when early dismissals and in-service days send parents scrambling to find child care or using paid (or unpaid) leave.

As a matter of law, however, I don't think the governor has the authority to issue the mandate. Maryland law appears to leave such decisions up to the counties.  But even if Hogan does have the authority, the action and the precedent seem to run counter to his prior actions. Hogan has made frequent efforts to restore local authority and reduce the influence of Annapolis on localities - this was especially true with regard to elimination of the so-called Rain Tax and his recent roll back of the septic system rule. Either Annapolis should defer to localities or it shouldn't and if the economic benefit of a post Labor Day start warrants statewide action then so must protection of the Chesapeake Bay. 

But instead of focusing on the legality of the Governor's executive order, most critics have instead chosen to emphasize the possible hardships caused by the executive order. State law mandates 180 instructional days and the requirement that school year end by June 15th introduces a wrinkle that can be problematic. The 15th of June will always fall on the 15th of June, but Labor Day is simply the 1st Monday in September and could be on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd...or 7th day of September. This means that in some years it will be easier to fit 180 instructional days into the calendar - there are literally more days to work with when Labor Day is on the 1st than when it's on the 7th. It's troubling that the executive order didn't take that into consideration. In 2017, Labor Day is on the 4th - making it a good mid-point for exploration.  

Anne Arundel County Public School System issued a press release this morning in which they warned of the possible consequences of the mandated calendar. According to the press release, AACPS schools are slated to open on August 21 and close on July 11 during the 2017/2018 school year and there are 181 scheduled instructional days during that time. Were AACPS to shift to a post Labor Day start date, they would need to find 10 additional days of instruction to makeup for the 10 days lost between August 21 and Labor Day. According to the memo, there are only 9 days available to work with making compliance "mathematically impossible." Though I'm sympathetic to the confines of the AACPS calendar, a review of the memo, the 2017/2018 calendar, and other county calendars suggests that compliance is possible. Calvert County's first day of school in 2017 is August 28th and the last day of school is June 7th. So Calvert County schools could open after Labor Day and close on June 14th and comply with both the 180 day rule and the June 15th close date. And still have a day in reserve for weather related cancellations. And the 180 day requirement can be waived for cancellations caused by bad weather. And the lost time could be made up by eliminating the multitude of early dismissals in the calendar. AACPS has 12 days with a 2 hour early dismissal - the equivalent of 4 school days.

What accounts for the differences between Calvert and Anne Arundel? The AACPS system includes 3 days during the school year in which classes are canceled to accommodate parent/teacher conferences. Calvert county cancels classes for 1 day for conferences. Calvert doesn't include potential snow days in its calendar, Anne Arundel does. But Calvert's calendar demonstrates that compliance is possible. 

More flexibility would be created if the General Assembly repealed the mandate that schools close on the Monday after Easter - it's not a federal holiday. Additionally, teachers are guaranteed a day off to attend the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) convention - which is held during the school year in October. Were the convention to be held in July or August (when schools are not in session) another day of flexibility would be created. So compliance with the executive order is not as difficult as some might suggest. 

Unfortunately, there is little actual discussion taking place regarding the new policy and how to make it work. Hogan's supporters are embracing the move while ignoring the questionable process questions inherent in the executive action and the imposition of a mandate on counties and Hogan's opponents are claiming harms that the General Assembly's own task force and a review of schools system calendars suggest do not exist. 

The biggest unknown may be the legality of the executive order - if a court were to determine that Hogan lacks the authority to issue the order then all of this was for nothing.
The biggest issue may be the