Lawmakers debate school start date


April 3rd, 2012 by Ric Hanson

Iowa schools would be able to start on the 4th Monday of August, but no earlier under legislation pending in the Iowa House. Representative Peter Cownie, a Republican from West Des Moines, urged members of the House Ways and Means Committee to endorse the bill late Monday afternoon. “We’re trying to solve a problem here and we’re trying to mend a relationship between government, business and schools,” Cownie says. Existing state law forbids schools from starting before the week in which September 1st falls, but most Iowa schools apply for a waiver from the state and start far earlier in August, some as early as August 15th.

Governor Branstad is irked at his own education department – the state agency granting those waivers. “I believe it’s a mistake to just give wholesale waivers to everybody,” Branstad says. “My daughter teaches in Waukee. She’s not even going to be able to go to the State Fair because teachers have to start on the 9th of August. I think this is unconscionable.” The state’s entire tourism industry complains about lost customers, as families quit traveling in August since practices for fall sports and other school activities often begin before classes resume for the fall semester.

Branstad supports legislation to establish a uniform school starting date in Iowa “that’s around Labor Day.”  “I believe the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin and other states — high achieving states, a lot of states in other parts of the country have a school start date that’s Labor Day or later,” he says. The bill that’s now eligible for debate in the Iowa House would allow schools to start no earlier than the 4th Monday in August, but they’d have to pay a 100-dollar fee to the state Education Department to process their waiver request to start before September 1st. Representative Jerry Kearns, a Democrat from Keokuk, ridiculed the Republicans who were supporting this new fee.

“If I had run or if my constituents had said they don’t want any new taxes, any new fees or charges by the state, I’d have to vote against this, wouldn’t I, if I were going to satisfy that constituency?” Kearns asked during the committee’s debate. Kearns and all the Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee voted against the bill, but it passed with the support of 13 Republicans. Two Republicans did vote no, however, including Representative Jeremy Taylor, who is a teacher from Sioux City. Taylor says it’s time to start thinking about “innovations” like a year-round school year instead. “Last year I thought that I could come up here as a freshman legislator and do away with the statutory school start date and I ran into the buzz saw of the State Fair and the tourism industry and football and so on,” Taylor says. Other critics say after three solid months of summer vacation, students have to relearn some of what they were taught the previous semester.

School officials say starting earlier in August allows the fall semester to conclude in December, before the holiday break, plus it gives schools a cushion to hold classes in early June to make up any days that are cancelled earlier in the year, due to snow.

(O. Kay Henderson/Radio Iowa)