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Issues That Matter to You: School Start After Labor Day

The gubernatorial candidates disagree on whether a state law should be changed to allow schools to begin before Labor Day. Republican Robert F. McDonnell supports keeping the law as is. Democrat R. Creigh Deeds favors changing it.
The gubernatorial candidates disagree on whether a state law should be changed to allow schools to begin before Labor Day. Republican Robert F. McDonnell supports keeping the law as is. Democrat R. Creigh Deeds favors changing it. (2007 Photo By Tracy A Woodward -- The Washington Post)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 2009

For thousands of schoolchildren in Virginia, Tuesday is the first day of school -- a full week after many of their counterparts in Maryland and two weeks after students in the District got back to classes.

The late start is not just a quirk of local school schedules. It's the law.

Under an obscure Virginia code, state law prohibits local school systems from making the first day of school any earlier than the day after Labor Day.

Only school systems that qualify for a waiver, under a complicated formula that takes into account the number of snow days a system has taken over several years, can start earlier.

In some parts of the state, where heavy mountain snows and winding rural roads mean school is canceled frequently, the waiver has become a matter of course. But in Northern Virginia, where winters have been mild for the past few years, school systems often do not qualify.

Some state lawmakers have been pushing to change the law for years.

Where do the gubernatorial candidates come down on the issue? Republican Robert F. McDonnell supports keeping the law as is, a spokeswoman said. Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds favors a change.

Last year, a bill to allow local school divisions to set their start dates got out of the Senate Education Committee on an 8 to 7 vote. But once it got to the floor, senators decided to send it back to another committee, where it died.

Supporters of a legal change include the Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers. VEA lobbyist Robley Jones said the organization believes that it should be up to school boards to set the calendar, including adopting full-year schooling if they want.

He said Virginia students are at a disadvantage when it comes to such national tests as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate because they end up with fewer days in class than their peers in other states before the exams are administered.

"This is something that should clearly be up to local school boards," he said.

The statute is known in Richmond informally as the Kings Dominion law because the amusement park has long resisted efforts to change it. After all, starting school after Labor Day gives the park one more week to draw families through its gates and one more week before its seasonal teenage employees must leave work for school.

John Pagel, the park's marketing director, said Kings Dominion used to lobby on the issue but now largely leaves it to the state tourism board to make the case for leaving the law alone. But he said a change in the law would mean that the park would have to close a week early.

"By letting us stay open these extra couple days, through this week, having those kids available, it really does help us and those families who take those last-minute vacations," he said. "It gives them somewhere to go and spend their tourism dollars in central Virginia."

McDonnell's spokeswoman did not provide a reason for his position but said he supports the law. Deeds co-sponsored an unsuccessful effort to change the law in 2000.

"I think you can make the case either way," he said. "It's not a view I'm strident in. . . . But the majority of funding comes from the localities. I would err on the side of giving local school boards control."


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