Restore sanity to calendar

Jan 22, 2006

Dan Gelber

The Daytona Beach News-Journal

Remember summer break in July and August? Well, that's not the case anymore, at least not in Florida. This year nearly every school district started classes the first week in August, and next year one district is poised to start in late July. If past action is an accurate indicator, other school districts will soon follow suit until almost all public school begin in July. And this crazy cycle will repeat itself the following year, except with an even earlier start date.

This trend started some years ago and has recently accelerated. Years ago most schools started their 180-day school year toward the end of August and early September. But each year more and more school districts moved their calendars up. The primary reason is the desire of school districts to have more time for Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test preparation. The FCAT is given on the same day in every district in Florida, so starting school in early August means more days to prepare. Of course, this doesn't mean the kids are doing better or learning more; it simply means they had more days to prepare than kids from another district that starts later.

Trying to get an advantage, or avoiding a disadvantage by simply starting earlier, are not legitimate reasons to move up the school calendar. And this is a cycle that is not premised on any academically sound rationale. Stopping this cycle is the primary reason I have introduced a bill that would establish a minimum start date for all Florida schools. The bill does not mandate that schools start at the same time, but does require they start no earlier than mid- to late August.

Hot weather play havoc during August in Florida. The sweltering heat is hardly conducive to study, and the cost of air-conditioning classrooms is shocking. A report demonstrated that a Tulsa, Okla., public school district saved nearly half a million dollars in electricity and gas utility costs by delaying the start o school until after Labor Day.

Then there are those hurricanes that arrive in August tearing everything apart. There's a stronger likelihood for schools to be knocked out of commission during August, the strongest period of the hurricane season. Our people remember too well the sad condition of our schools when hurricanes left them inundated and unusable for weeks and longer.

There are other reasons beyond saving money and health. Parents complain that not only is family vacation time in jeopardy, but also are their choices for their children to attend other summer-enrichment programs. As well, students seeking to attend summer pre-college credit programs are at a disadvantage in completing those sessions. Many members of the business community also support this idea because Florida's tourism industry cannot hire high school kids for only half of their summer season.

And teachers have a host of complaints. Many continuing education programs are unavailable to Florida's teachers because of scheduling conflicts created by Florida's out-of-whack school calendar. And some out-of-state residents moving to Florida are surprised by our early start, and their children's loss of schooling. This loss is hardly FCAT-helpful.

For once, Gov. Jeb Bush and I are on the same page. Though we don't agree on the emphasis of the FCAT in the school system, I believe he too opposes this trend. I think we both agree that there is not an academically sound reason to continually move the calendar up into the middle of the summer. While some local school administrators are resisting a legislatively imposed minimum school start date because they believe it takes away local control, the truth is it is Tallahassee's failure to provide just such a date that created this cycle.

Further, the proposed bill only sets the starting school date to no earlier than an agreed-upon date in late August. Local school districts will still have complete control of their school calendars and students will still have to attend a full 180 days no matter when the calendar starts. They just can't start earlier than the established date. The proposal take effect in 2007 allowing schools to rework their calendars so not to conflict with dual enrollment programs with colleges, and to allow them to create a schedule that permits administering exams prior to the Christmas holiday if that is what the local district wants. This proposed legislation is not aimed at the FCAT exam, but at this unnecessary cycle that is clearly not in the best interests of Florida's families and schoolchildren. By creating a uniform and minimum start date, we hope can restore sanity to Florida's school calendar.

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