Members of the state task force assigned to address the controversial issue of when school should start in the fall has decided they don’t like the current policy that grants waivers to 98-percent of schools to allow them to start school in August. But the group decided to issue a majority and minority opinion on whether the state should set a concrete start date that everyone has to stick with. Waterloo Schools Superintendent, Gary Norris represented the eastern side of the state. He voted with the majority who want the school start date to be left up to individual districts.
“Generally the schools I represent — which are some of the larger districts in the state — believe that the needs of Iowa children are so unique from one district to the next that it is impossible to take a decision like this and make it perfectly at the state level,” Norris said. “So, we would prefer that it be made at the local level.” The minority side wants the legislature to set a school start date within the first week of September with no waivers. They argue earlier starts have an impact on the Iowa State Fair, tourism and student summer jobs. “We do understand the other competing interests here,” Norris said, “And clearly the economy of Iowa is a major factor here, and we respect that. The Iowa fair is a rich tradition.”
Department of Education liaison, Mike Cormack (the former Mayor of Massena) served as the moderator for the committee meeting and he says including both opinions is the best way to handle an issue that has admittedly become very contentious through he years. “I think that the viewpoint of the group was that this is one element of many elements and throughout all the other topics — which include the length of the school year, length of the school day, afterschool programming — there was a lot of consensus among this group. And so what they didn’t want was one area where there wasn’t consensus to distract from where there was,” Cormack explains. “So I think it (having two opinions) was basically a respect through a process of each other that served as taskforce members”.
Cormack said the issue of when to grant waivers to allow schools to start in August has been muddled by language that says there should not be “specific negative impact on students” from allowing earlier starts. He said everyone on this task believed that was to vague. “What each side would agree upon is that there should be clarity. The law should be defined and a decision needs to be made so that districts can do some long-term planning and so that businesses can do long-term planning as well,” Cormack said.
Superintendent Norris said everyone agrees there is not real evidence to show any impact on student learning based on when the school year begins. “You know there really isn’t. There’s a lot of emotion on either side, but there’s no that I know of, I’ve not read any definitive studies that talk about the start of the year,” Norris said. “There is some interesting studies that talk about that teenagers should start later in the day, there’s some definitive stuff on that, but the start date — as I tried to point out to the committee is largely driven by tradition.” The tradition included the agricultural calendar where kids had to be out of school to help with farm work. The committee will hold one final meeting by telephone to complete the language on their recommendation and then will send the majority/minority opinion on to the legislature to hash out the final start date.