Toward the tail end of the legislative session, you may recall a push by the Tourism lobby to enact legislation that would curtail the start of the school year. The argument made was that school starts too early and that it shouldn't start before Labor Day. The point that local school districts made, and one that I was out in front on was the fact that the school calendar is a local decision. I prepare several academic calendars and solicit input from our district stakeholders, and the final proposal is brought forth in a public hearing. There are many considerations that go into deciding when to start school, from aligning calendars with local colleges so teachers and students can take advantage of educational opportunities at those institutions; to special events that may be unique to a particular locality.
In any event, this legislation did not see the light of day, but we anticipate that it will be a pretty hot topic again this coming January. Education reform is no doubt going to be a major player in the halls of the Capitol, especially since Iowa was denied the NCLB waiver. When the original blueprint was unveiled, it was a bit surprising to me and many of my colleagues that [length of school year] wasn't even mentioned. Many school leaders, myself included, believe that lengthening the school year beyond the traditional 180 days needs to be part of any real reform effort.
At the time, Director Glass was adamant that he didn't want to mess with the length of the school year because it was a local decision. I remember this remark distinctly because our AEA superintendent group was attending a meeting with him in Clear Lake when this very question was asked. I tend to believe it had nothing to do with it being a local decision (particularly when tied to the school start date, which I will tie together here momentarily), but instead had more to do with financial resources. Because schools are a labor intensive activity (you already know this), over 80% of our operating budget is tied up in salary. Each day we add to the calendar would cost roughly $15,500 per day in labor cost.
I would opine that all the reforms were doomed from the start, because although the ideas were grand, there was (and still is) no commitment to properly fund education in Iowa. Case in point: we received zero percent allowable growth for Fiscal Year 2012, two percent allowable growth for Fiscal Year 2013, and a failure on the part of the Legislature/Executive Branch to set allowable growth for Fiscal year 2014.
Okay, so how does this tie together? Well, the legislature directed the Department of Education to set up a task force to study the length of the school calendar, the hours of instruction, and to come up with options to be considered by the full legislature. The 16 members of the task force were announced last week. I have to admit that I was puzzled by the fact that two of the members of the committee represent the tourism industry. (Any thoughts on what their motivation may be?) As Tom Downs, Executive Director of the Iowa Association of School Board pointed out: none of the members of the committee are school board members.
So this begs the question, what exactly did the Director mean when he told our Superintendent group that issues regarding the calendar are local issues, particularly when school boards have been shut out of this very conversation?