By Erica R. Hendry and Kristen Smith, Capital News Service
Virginia lawmakers are pushing a half-dozen bills this legislative session to let public schools start classes before Labor Day.
Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, is among legislators sponsoring bills to repeal Virginia’s “King’s Dominion law,” which prevents local schools from opening before Labor Day unless they get special permission from the state.
Kory’s proposal, House Bill 1491, “makes local school boards responsible for setting the school calendar and determining the opening day of the school year.”
Currently, school boards can start classes before Labor Day only if they show “good cause” (such as a history of snow-related school closings) and get a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education.
Kory, a former PTA leader in Northern Virginia and a member of the Fairfax County School Board, said schools should have the power to set their academic calendars.
“There are a lot of options and program decisions that school systems cannot take advantage of if they are forced to wait until after Labor Day to start their school year,” she said.
Kory's position and bill is supported by the Fairfax County School Board, which this week wrote in its legislative agenda it "supports local school board control over school calendars and the school day, including allowing local school boards to set the opening day of school."
It continues: "Decisions regarding school calendars should be based on the consensus of the local community and sound academic practice rather than be dictated by state mandate. In the absence of repeal, the FCSB supports additional definitions of good cause for opening school prior to Labor Day to include: additional instructional time, particularly prior to nationally administered assessments of student academic achievement; the provision of appropriate summer remediation programs for students; and increased professional development opportunities for staff."
As it stands, schools must wait because of a law passed by the General Assembly in 1986. Nicknamed the “King’s Dominion law,” after the theme park in Hanover County, it was intended to help Virginia’s tourism industry.
Critics say the “King’s Dominion law” puts Virginia students at a disadvantage.
For example, they might not have as much class time as students in other states to prepare for college entrance exams and other standardized tests.
There have been repeated attempts to repeal the current restrictions and give school boards the option of holding classes before Labor Day.
Last year, the General Assembly considered 13 bills to empower school divisions to choose their own opening dates – an idea backed by Gov. Bob McDonnell. However, none of the bills passed.
In 2011, it was the same story, and Fairfax County Public Schools conducted a survey to gauge the county's support on moving the school start date; a majority of respondents said they'd like to start school before the holiday.
Kory hopes the outcome will be different this year.
HB 1491 would not affect school division budgets because it would not change the number of class days or the length of the school day.
Kory says it’s unfair for the state to dictate how local school boards must set their school calendars.
“In the state Constitution, school boards are described as the elected body that is responsible for all aspects of the K-12 public school system. It’s a little inconsistent for the state to decide that one of the few powers that the state has chosen to take away from the locally elected school boards is when you can start school,” Kory said.
Del. Barbara Comstock (R-34th) has also filed a bill that mirrors Kory's. Comstock is hosting a town hall Saturday in McLean on that bill and others that involve education.
Breakdown of Bills:
Six bills have been filed in the House to let school boards start classes before Labor Day. All of the bills have been assigned to the Teachers and Administrative Action Subcommittee of the House Education Committee.
The bills are:
- HB 1309, by Delegate Barbara Comstock, D-McLean
- HB 1310, by Delegate Gregory Habeeb, R-Salem
- HB 1319, by Delegate Donald Merricks, R-Chatham. (His bill would apply only to Danville, Martinsville, Henry County and Pittsylvania County.)
- HB 1467, by Delegate Thomas “Tag” Greason, R-Lansdowne
- HB 1491, by Delegate Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church
- HB 1880, Delegate Joseph Morrissey, D-Highland Springs
In the Senate, Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Roanoke, also has filed a measure to let school boards decide whether to open before Labor Day. His proposal, Senate Bill 1099, has been referred to the Senate Education and Health Committee.