Education

Iowa lawmakers again debating school start date

Education and tourism interests last clashed in 2015

Cedar Rapids Community School District buses at the Education Leadership Support Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, August 7, 2014. (File photo/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Community School District buses at the Education Leadership Support Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, August 7, 2014. (File photo/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — After more than two years of relative tranquilly, some lawmakers are not eager to open another fight between Iowa’s tourist industry and education officials over when classes should begin this fall.

“I would say when we passed that bill a couple of years ago, we went through a lot of discussion,” said Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, chairman of the House Education Committee. “I’m not sure my caucus is in a place to want to bring it up again, but we’ll find out.”

Some semblance of order was brought to a hodgepodge of school start dates when former Gov. Terry Branstad signed legislation in April 2015 that says classes at Iowa’s K-12 public schools may start no sooner than Aug. 23. Before that, only 14 out of 338 districts had started after Aug. 23 in the 2014-15 school year under a waiver that was eliminated in the new law.

Branstad — who had ordered the Iowa Department of Education to strictly enforce the old law that said schools must start no earlier than the week that includes Sept. 1 — hailed the Aug. 23 date as a compromise between schools that wanted control over their calendars and tourism interests that wanted a start closer to or after Labor Day.

Aug. 23 was selected in part because that’s the latest date the 11-day Iowa State Fair ends.

Now, Senate File 2064, which has moved out of a Senate Education subcommittee, seeks to modify the 2015 law by saying the earliest date for classes to start would be Aug. 23 or the Monday following the closing day of the state fair, whichever occurs earlier.

For 2018, that means classes could begin Aug. 20 if the bill becomes law.

“I think this bill reflects that original intent to have more uniformity in the start date but to also accommodate the state fair,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, who supported it in subcommittee.

Sen. Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine, the bill’s author, said he proposed the change at the request of his local officials who hoped the earlier start would allow them to finish fall classes before their winter break.

“It’s just a little change but it would make a world of difference,” said Lofgren.

However, officials from the tourism industry and county fairs oppose the change, saying it would create economic hardships and undo a compromise.

“For about 20 years we have tried to make the case that every day that school creeps farther and farther into August, it affects the tourism industry,” said Craig Patterson, a lobbyist for the Travel Federation of Iowa. Each lost tourism day in Iowa’s Great Lakes’ region represents about $1 million in business, he said.

“Our folks were not happy with the compromise the first time,” Patterson said. “We felt we gave a lot.”

Representatives of education organizations said the proposed change would give them more flexibility in setting their school calendars.

“This would be helpful,” said Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist for Rural School Advocates of Iowa and the Urban Education Network of Iowa, who expressed concern that the “summer slide” linked to long summer breaks can hurt academic achievement, especially among students from low-income families who cannot afford enrichment activities.

One subcommittee member, Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, agreed with that, saying he has grandchildren in Australia and benefit from attending year-round schools there.

“County fairs I love; the state fair I love. But kids to me are a little bit higher on the totem pole,” Rozenboom said.

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Ryan Wise, director of the state Education Department, said he was not familiar with proposal so his agency has not analyzed the legislation.

But he noted that the school start date issue has not been much of a topic of concern lately.

“I think districts adjusted,” Wise said. “I think it was a big issue at the time. I have not heard a lot about it when I’ve been out in schools. I think we’ve only had one issue of a district starting a day early, and we worked with that district and provided a letter and they said they would not start early again.”

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