A petition effort to move Tangipahoa Parish’s first day of school closer to Labor Day mirrors fights in other states where administrators and lawmakers have wrangled with balancing exam schedules, family vacations and concerns about student health amid the peak summer heat.
Over the years, Louisiana’s school start dates have moved closer and closer to the beginning of August. This year, public school students in East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes are starting Aug. 6 and Aug. 7, respectively.
The early start dates set off a bit of a firestorm in Tangipahoa, where parents last week asked the School Board to consider moving the first day of school to after Labor Day.
The complaints — which have sparked debates in other states, too — often begin with the intense heat in August, which makes for unpleasant and potentially unsafe bus rides and play times and contributes to soaring campus energy costs.
But the criticism also has become entangled in the debate over the state’s growing emphasis on standardized tests, with parents and schools alike acknowledging that the earlier start dates are compelled, at least in part, by a need to get as much preparation time in as possible.
“Google the topic (school start date), and you’ll probably get 84 million hits,” said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. “It’s a debate that’s been raging for decades. But this time around, it adjoins the issues that we’ve been facing for a while now with overtesting and the complaints from teachers and kids that the joy that was once part of education is becoming regimented and part of bureaucracy and the lack of control.”
Louisiana law, similar to most other states, requires school districts to schedule about 180 days of instructional time per year — 177 six-hour days, or 63,720 minutes, to be precise.
But unlike the growing number of states that limit how early the schoolhouse doors can open, Louisiana doesn’t dictate where those days must fall on the calendar.
That decision, made at the district level, revolves primarily around the state testing schedule and the timing of first-semester finals.
“All the districts are waiting on that testing schedule before we start setting our calendars,” Livingston Parish Schools Superintendent John Watson said.
The state testing schedule can be grueling, with a different group of students taking an exam during “almost all but about three or four weeks in the second semester,” Watson said.
The state superintendents association has asked the state Department of Education to try to condense the testing as much as possible, but “there is almost always some kind of testing going on in the second semester,” Watson said.
Many districts have shifted their school calendars earlier in the year to ensure more instructional days before both the spring testing and the state-mandated end-of-course exams in December.
Ascension Superintendent Patrice Pujol said moving first-semester finals back to December, before winter break, rather than testing the students after they return in January, makes sense for other reasons, as well.
“Years ago, we would teach the whole first part of the year, take a two week break, come back for four days and then start semester exams after that,” Pujol said. “It made sense to back that up before Christmas, give the kids a true break and then come back fresh to start a new semester.”
Holidays — which vary in priority from one community to the next — are also a major factor in scheduling. Some districts trade a day or two at Thanksgiving to include a parish fair day or combine Easter and spring break in order to take a few days around Mardi Gras. The more holidays that fall in the first semester, the sooner classes typically must start.
Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said taking away holiday time to create movement in the calendar would be more difficult than most people think.
“It’s hard for parents to delay two weeks when taking vacation time or extend two weeks in June,” Meaux said. “Also, many parents are divorced and the kids are in another state with the other parent for the summer, so this would mess up their schedules.”
Pujol said districts may, of course, start their school calendars later — say, in late August or even early September — “but then you’re going to finish later. You’re not really going to extend your summer.”
The Tangipahoa parents organizing the petition for a later start to the school year have said lengthening summer vacation is not their goal. They are more concerned with ensuring their children are not stuck in non-air-conditioned school buses or in stifling uniforms during the dog days of summer.
The petition has gathered more than 5,400 signatures since it was posted online last weekend, with many signatures coming from school bus drivers from across the state who say their buses are no place for children in the peak August heat.
Renee Jones, a bus driver from Albany, wrote among her reasons for signing the petition that a student suffered an asthma attack on her bus last year due to the heat.
“It was so hot that this student couldn’t catch their breath,” Jones wrote. “I tried to do what I could to assist this student, but it scared me bad.”
Other bus drivers and parents wrote of seeing children getting off buses in the afternoon after rides of up to two hours, drenched in sweat and utterly fatigued by the heat.
One petition signer from Florida — where state lawmakers recently moved up the date schools could open, from two weeks before Labor Day to Aug. 10 — said she could sympathize with the heat concerns.
“In Florida, we too have excessive heat, and these school boards and Head Starts do not care about how hot our children get, but it’s illegal to leave an animal or child in a hot car!” wrote Patricia Martinez, of Jacksonville.
Petition organizers say the heat is not only a safety concern but also an economic burden on the schools and the taxpayers that support them due to higher energy costs in August.
Tina Bruno, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for a Traditional School Year, said money used to cover those extra costs would be better spent on things like small-group tutoring for students who need the extra help.
“People don’t complain so much about taxes when they see extra offerings at the schools, but they do complain when it’s hot outside, class is called at half a day, the last week of the semester is used for board games, and children are going from class to class with their jackets on in one and sweating in another,” Bruno said.
“It’s a tough argument when taxpayers see dollars literally blowing out the window with cooling costs.”
Beyond the additional energy costs, Bruno said early school start dates also keep the state from reaping additional revenue from seasonal businesses — more tax dollars for public education — and misses out on the advantages of aligning K-12 and higher education calendars.
Before Texas began prohibiting K-12 schools from opening before the fourth week of August, high school students were beginning classes sometimes two weeks before their dual-enrollment courses began on college campuses, Bruno said. After the law was adopted in 2007, “there was a massive spike in dual-credit enrollment, not because it was pushed more, but because it was easier.”
Aligning K-12 and higher education calendars also gives teachers more opportunities to seek training or advanced degrees by ensuring they can attend both of a university’s summer sessions, Bruno said.
Bruno’s organization advocates for laws across the country adopting statewide start dates or limiting how early districts may choose to begin classes. More than a dozen states now have such laws, including Texas, Florida, Virginia, Michigan and Hawaii — the only state to mandate a common calendar for all public schools, with the same start date, holidays, vacation days and end date.
A similar effort was underway in Louisiana in 2005, before Hurricane Katrina, Bruno said, but the storm refocused time and energy elsewhere.
While many groups have pushed for a post-Labor Day start date for schools, Bruno said waiting that late can be problematic.
“I know everybody considers Labor Day as the end of summer, but Labor Day varies by up to 7 days and can create a very late end date for schools,” she said. “You also have to look at when colleges are going back in session. If it’s at the end of August, you don’t want your little ones going back much later.”
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, or call her at (225) 336-6981.