Parents Campaign to Take Back Kids' Summers

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006

MIAMI -- The pressures of federally mandated exams have pushed public schools here and in several other states to begin classes weeks earlier than usual to squeeze in more days of instruction before the critical tests, sometimes striking August entirely from vacation calendars and devoting the month, traditionally left open for childhood leisure, to class time.

But a widespread backlash, led by disgruntled parents organized into loosely affiliated Save Our Summers groups across the country, is underway.

Legislators in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Pennsylvania are weighing bills this year that would peg school start dates to Labor Day. North Carolina, Texas, Minnesota and Wisconsin passed similar measures in recent years.

The issue is one of the most controversial aspects in the debate over the exams used to comply with the No Child Left Behind law, leading to widening opposition and adding to the litany of complaints about the side effects of what critics call "high-stakes" testing.

Public schools here, for example, began classes at the beginning of August, essentially wiping out a month many had counted on for a spell of unhurried pleasure. Sherry Sturner, a mother of two in Miami-Dade County, had been looking forward to a family reunion up north and time at the swimming pool. But the new schedule did not accommodate them.

"It just felt so out of whack," said Sturner, who created a Save Our Summers group to shift the school calendar back. "Every year, the schools were taking another week out of our summers. It was hot . So I said, 'You know what? I've had enough.' "

Or as South Florida-based columnist Dave Barry asked Miami Herald readers: "Here's a multiple-choice test: When should the school year start?

"A. Sometime around Sept. 1, when most of the United States of America has started school for many decades.

"B. On Aug. 8 -- also known as "smack dab in the middle of summer'' -- when the average Florida classroom is roughly the same temperature as a pizza oven."

Gov. Jeb Bush (R), a champion of the school accountability tests, known here as the FCATs, said he backs the bill tying school openings to Labor Day. The measure easily won endorsement from a House committee last week.

"I like it because, first of all, I'm tired of the FCAT being an excuse for everything from the common cold to the state of the schools," Bush told reporters recently. "It's just not right. I think bringing some certainty across the state is a good thing."

Critics have blamed the exams for creating unhealthy academic pressures and unnecessarily narrowing the definition of education to what can be measured by the tests. Some schools have sacrificed recess, art, music or social studies to gain preparation time for the exams.

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