School Days

summer be summer

Last Wednesday, Governor Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot traveled to Ocean City to hold a press conference.  Marching under Franchot’s banner of “Let Summer be Summer”, Hogan announced his intention to issue an Executive Order mandating that all 24 school districts in Maryland begin their academic year after Labor Day starting in 2017.

It is an objective that Franchot has been pursuing without success for several years.  Now it appears that he has an enthusiastic partner in Hogan.  Earlier last week the Comptroller, in touting the idea, observed that he had not found anyone who was opposed to the move.

That bit of spin was quickly undone by pushback from a number of quarters including: a Baltimore Sun Editorial, “Labor Day Madness”; a Washington Post Editorial, “Starting School after Labor Day will hurt Maryland Students”; and a Sun op/ed by Maryland Delegate Eric Luedtke, “Hogan and Franchot: Profiles in Pandering.”

There are, to be sure, supporters, including Ocean City merchants and some parents of school age kids who have publicly joined the effort.  You can also find lively discussions, both pro and con, about the proposal on Facebook, although those exchanges tend to sound like echo chambers.

It’s important to recognize that this initiative has nothing to do with improving the quality of education in Maryland.  Neither Hogan nor Franchot has demonstrated any particular commitment to public education.  Hogan keeps asserting that he has put record amounts of funding into the state budget for education but, of course, all of that was mandated by state law.  Every time he has had a choice to make, he has refused to add money to the education budget.

Franchot likes to describe himself in his current version as a fiscal conservative and a social progressive.  You could search far and wide for any social issue that has gotten a fraction of the attention from him that the school calendar has.

Increasing tourism in Ocean City is a defensible goal, but it is necessary to ask whether this initiative meets the standard of “first do no harm” to schools.   There’s no evidence that concern has even crossed either of their minds.

If school starts after Labor Day, when does it end?  Hogan’s answer, using the same Executive Order magic wand, is June 15.  That date smacks of a last second, not well-thought-out addition to the press event.  Since Labor Day doesn’t fall on the same date each year, the number of days between then and June 15 will change from year to year.  Similarly, June 15 will fall on a different day of the week each year.  That kind of micro-managing of local affairs is what Republicans profess to loathe.

Franchot for some time has argued that with better calendar management, there’s no reason that the school year can’t still end in mid-June as it does now.  At the same time, he has severely criticized the same education “bureaucrats” who would be responsible for that better management for their resistance to his proposal and for the way in which they manage the calendar today.

There are multiple factors that determine how long the school year runs.  First is the State requirement that students have 180 days of classroom instruction.  We should actually be talking about more instruction time, but the authors of this idea have shown no interest in that discussion.

Hogan reiterated the 180 day requirement in his Executive Order even as he used the occasion to repeat his rants against teachers’ unions.  Perhaps he is more intent on picking fights that he believes will benefit him politically than on the impact of his actions on classrooms.

Snow days are a second factor.  While not much of an issue on the Eastern Shore, there are years in which schools in the rest of the State use up all of their scheduled snow days and are forced to add extra days in June.  In Garrett County, which voted decisively for Hogan, it’s not unusual to have as many as 12 snow days in a school year.  Unless climate change reduces the likelihood of snow in Maryland, this problem is not going away and can’t be brushed aside by an Executive Order.

The school year also has what might technically be called discretionary breaks.  Many are of long-standing and have significant support.  Given that Hogan and Franchot feel comfortable deciding when the school year should start and end, it only seems reasonable to expect them to weigh in on whether to retain or modify those breaks.  Otherwise, they are merely making the easy, popular decision and leaving the school “bureaucrats” to take the blame for cutting other breaks in which families make plans to spend time together.

One is the mid-year or Christmas vacation period.  Should that be reduced in length?  Fewer days then would certainly make it easier to finish by mid-June.  The same can be said of Spring break, which includes Easter Monday in most school districts.

Franchot has cited Worcester County for starting after Labor Day and has suggested that, therefore, all jurisdictions should be able to do it.  Setting aside whether that County should be seen as the educational model for the State, the small wrinkle in that argument is that Worcester County does not provide days off for the Jewish holidays.  Guidance from the Comptroller on which religious holidays should be recognized by school systems would help enormously with the scheduling challenges.

School districts negotiate with teachers’ unions about professional days during the course of the year.  While the Governor would certainly love to target those days as unnecessary, that attitude shows how little regard he has for teachers.  In an era of rapid change in both content and rules regarding curriculum, on-going teacher education would seem essential, not at all a waste of time.

Oh, and then there’s the issue of athletic teams and bands that start practice prior to the first day of school.  Under the Executive Order, will they be allowed to continue doing that or will they be expected to spend those days in Ocean City?

Given the odd mix of micromanagement and lack of detail in Hogan and Franchot’s Labor Day pronouncement, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a political stunt.  Hogan’s belligerent tone at the press conference makes it clear that he wants a political fight over the issue.  In warning legislators that they challenge him at their electoral peril, he runs the risk, however, that voters won’t agree with him that this is the most important issue facing the State today.

Hogan seems totally focused on maneuvering to get himself reelected. His administration is much about gestures, little about substance and certainly not about public education.

Franchot, who should know better, seems content to fiddle on the margins of public policy rather than using his office and political skills to advocate for policies that help citizens.  Even if he believes that starting school after Labor Day is a positive step, he can’t possibly believe that there aren’t other pressing issues more worthy of his time and attention.

There is finally another matter to consider.  I’m not even referring to whether the Governor has the authority to change the school calendar by Executive Order.  That question will certainly be debated in the coming months.   Rather, you have to wonder why an elected official who constantly is advocating for less government and who professes a belief in local control is able to impose a “one-size-fits-all” solution on 24 local school systems.  That explanation should be worth hearing.