OCEAN CITY — Summer is about to get a little bit longer for Cecil County students if the governor has his way.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order mandating that starting next school year, all school districts in Maryland must start school after Labor Day and end school before June 15.
School systems must still be in session for 180 days as required by law but can apply to the Maryland State Department of Education for a waiver to start school earlier if they have “compelling justification.”
“Starting Maryland public schools after Labor Day is not just a family issue — it’s an economic and public safety issue that draws clear, strong, bipartisan support among an overwhelming majority of Marylanders,” Hogan said during a press conference in Ocean City. “Comptroller Franchot and I believe, and the people of Maryland strongly agree, that this Executive Order puts the best interests of Marylanders first, especially the well-being of our students. This action is long overdue, and it is simply the right thing to do.”
While the governor and comptroller may be on board with the plan, the Maryland General Assembly historically hasn’t, denying legislation to accomplish the goal over the past several years. Some legislative leaders announced Wednesday that they were seeking rulings from the Maryland Office of the Attorney General as to whether the governor could mandate a start date, while others said they anticipated rebuffing the governor’s plans in the next assembly.
But Hogan’s announcement comes as a victory for Comptroller Peter Franchot who has advocated starting school after Labor Day for years with his “Let Summer Be Summer” campaign. Both the governor and Franchot have repeatedly emphasized the economic benefits such a change would have, while also touting strong popular support for a post-Labor Day start.
Indeed, a 2013 economic impact study by Maryland’s Bureau of Revenue Estimates found that a post-Labor Day start would generate an extra $74.3 million in direct economic activity while two Goucher College polls from 2014 and 2015 show more than 70 percent of Marylanders support the issue.
But regardless of the statistics, the state’s educational establishment is gearing up for a fight. The Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland, the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and the Maryland State Education Association, among others, have all condemned Hogan’s executive order and Cecil County education leaders have followed suit.
On Thursday morning, Superintendent D’Ette Devine had strong words for the governor’s mandate, calling it “ill-advised” and “really anti-student.” The executive order, Devine said, could lead to a reduction in instruction days and days off during the school year and flies in the face of local control by preventing school systems from setting their own calendars, all while having little economic benefit.
“Educational calendars are for schools; they’re not to help the state raise money, they’re not to plan family vacations. That’s not what it’s about. It’s an instructional calendar that we take a lot of time with to make sure it’s the right mix for kids, teachers and their families,” she said.
The strong opposition from almost every educational group in the state is further proof that the law will only harm students, Devine said. In creating the school calendar, school systems already must take into account a variety of factors including state and federally-mandated testing, national holidays, inclement weather days and professional days, which are negotiated with the teachers’ association.
In the end, because of the June 15 end date, students may have a longer summer but will lose many other days during the school year such as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the days before Christmas Eve when that holiday falls mid-week, Devine said.
“This is no easy deal because it’s going to affect everything else,” she said. “We’re still working through the nuances, so I’m not exactly sure what some of the unintended consequences will be.”
Depending on the year and how holidays fall, some years it may end up being mathematically impossible to fit 180 days in between the day after Labor Day and June 15, Devine said, which would lead to a loss of instruction days.
Devine also doubts the executive order will have the economic benefits that Franchot and Hogan have claimed.
“Right now, the free and reduced meals number in Maryland is 50 percent,” Devine said. “Do you think their families are taking multiple vacations to Ocean City every year? Yeah, neither are our 45 percent here in Cecil County.”
Every school system is different and the individual counties should have flexibility in creating a schedule that meets the needs of its individual communities and students, Devine said. For example, Worcester County, home to Ocean City, already starts after Labor Day, a schedule that works well for that county but that shouldn’t be imposed on the rest of the state, she noted.
Cecil County Board of Education President Dawn Branch shared Devine’s concerns about local control, while also noting the unintended educational consequences the executive order will have.
“I don’t think you can put education and the economy in the same sentence,” she said. “You have to do what’s best for students.”
Every county should be able to determine its own schedule based on its own needs, Branch said. In Cecil County, only a small minority of people have ever asked the school board for a post-Labor Day start, she added, and she worries that Hogan’s executive order may lead to other mandates.
“What comes next? What else is he going to change?” she said.
Lori Hrinko, president of the Cecil County Classroom Teachers Association, also had concerns about Hogan’s executive order. A longer summer could have many unintended consequences for families, she noted, citing higher daycare costs for working parents and concerns about students who are “food insecure” and don’t have as much access to free meals during the summer months.
The longer break in instruction could also further add to what educators refer to as the “summer slide,” when students lose academic skills over the summer months away from classrooms, Hrinko said.
“As a teacher, (the kids) kind of shut off in June, do their own thing in the summer and then it takes a few weeks to get them started again,” she said.
But other county officials were more optimistic about a post-Labor Day start.
Sandy Turner, Cecil County tourism coordinator, called Hogan’s executive order “wonderful news” and expects it will have a positive effect on the county tourism industry.
“An extra week or two of summer vacation can generate millions in additional tax revenues for the state,” she said in a statement. “This certainly has the potential to give a boost to Cecil County’s small businesses which are the backbone of our local tourism industry. There has been tremendous support for this initiative throughout Maryland for many years.”
Delegate Kevin Hornberger (R-Cecil), who serves on the House of Delegates Education Subcommittee, also voiced his support of Hogan’s mandate, citing his support of a post-Labor Day start dating back before his election.
“Citing economic development and the agricultural foundation that Cecil County is built upon as reasons for this common sense approach, I stood alone as the only one on stage advocating this now enacted policy,” he said of a 2014 candidate forum he participated in against then-Delegate David Rudolph. “Listening to both sides of the argument over the last two years and many bill hearings later, I stand by my position and stand with the governor and comptroller on this policy shift. I will fight to ensure it is not overridden during the next legislative session.”
Cecil County Public Schools started on Monday, a week before Labor Day, and the system’s latest start date in nearly a decade. For the 2015-2016 school year, the first day of class was scheduled for Aug. 20 — 18 days before the holiday. Likewise, the 2014-2015 school year started on Aug. 21 — 11 days before Labor Day.
CCPS has traditionally finished before June 15, though. This year, the last day of school is scheduled for June 13 while for the 2015-2016 school year, the final day was June 9. But in 2014, snow days forced the system to push the final day of school from the planned date of June 6 all the way to June 16.
In Cecil County, the school calendar is created by a 20-member calendar committee consisting of parents, teachers, students, administrators and support staff. Their recommendations are then passed on to the school board, who must approve the final calendar.