Va. to Revisit Law on When Schools Open
By Ann O'Hanlon
Previous efforts by Northern Virginia school officials to overturn the 13-year-old law have failed because of strong opposition from hotels, restaurants and amusement parks. Those businesses say they would lose money if classes started earlier because many families would stop vacationing over the Labor Day weekend.
But educators hope to finally convince lawmakers this year that local control of the school calendar is more important than tourism dollars. In particular, they will argue that students need more days of class in late August or early September to prepare for the state's rigorous new Standards of Learning tests given in the spring. Students took the tests for the first time last spring, and figures released last week showed that more than 97 percent of Virginia schools failed to meet the state's benchmarks for performance on the exams.
Missing out on the extra instruction is "really unfair to the public school children," said Jerilyn Christensen, the lobbyist for Prince William County schools.
School officials also are concerned because Labor Day is Sept. 7 this year, the second year in a row it has fallen relatively late on the calendar. Schools will make up for that with more instruction days in June, but educators say students' attention spans are at their shortest in the spring.
An additional worry is the Year 2000 computer problem. In Prince William, the School Board wants to start classes Aug. 30 so it can build in two "cushion" days of vacation on Jan. 3 and 4 in case schools are plagued by computer problems.
Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-Prince William) said he will sponsor legislation to abolish the Labor Day rule in response to educators' concerns.
But Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), an advocate of the rule, called the educators' arguments "hogwash." The difference in the date that classes would resume is only a matter of a few days, Saslaw said.
"You would think that this is the end of Western civilization," he said. "It has really nothing to do with education, but everything to do with their pride."
Saslaw scoffed at the idea that schools need the extra few days of preparation for the state-mandated exams. "They're not spending 170 days all teaching to that test," he said.
Under Virginia law, school districts that want to open before Labor Day need a special waiver from the state Department of Education. Maryland has no such restrictions, and its schools typically open at least a week earlier than Virginia's.
In last year's General Assembly session, Saslaw successfully sponsored a bill that makes it harder for Virginia school systems to get a waiver, and the state turned down waiver requests from Prince William, Stafford, Falls Church and Manassas Park. Saslaw said he sponsored the legislation because waivers had become so pervasive that the original law was nearly meaningless.
He added that legislators represent constituents, not school boards, and that he has seen polls showing that people want school to start after Labor Day.
But school officials say the pressure on legislators to keep schools from opening sooner comes not from parents but from the tourism industry -- especially from Paramount's Kings Dominion, an amusement park outside Richmond.
A review of campaign finance records shows that of the 26 state senators who voted for Saslaw's bill, 18 received a contribution from Kings Dominion in 1998, with the donations totaling $12,200. Only one of the 14 senators voting against the bill received such a contribution.
Saslaw's own campaign received $1,000 from Kings Dominion in 1998 and $1,500 in 1996. He said that there was no connection between the donations and his bill and that he supported the Labor Day policy before Kings Dominion ever contributed to his campaign.
In the House of Delegates, 52 of the 73 delegates supporting Saslaw's bill have received campaign money from the company over the last three years, compared with only four of the 19 delegates who voted against the bill.
James Copp, vice president of finance and administration at Kings Dominion, said the company's campaign contributions have nothing to do with the Labor Day issue.
"That has never been a condition of how we determine how we're going to do contributions," he said.
Copp said that Virginia's law benefits every hotel, restaurant and gas station in the state and that school systems have failed to prove it is detrimental to education.
Virginia's rule is unique. Seven years ago, four other states -- Arkansas, Minnesota, Missouri and South Dakota -- had a similar prohibition in place. Each of them has since changed its law, either allowing total local control of the school calendar or choosing an earlier starting date, such as Sept. 1. Minnesota was the last holdout, changing its law last year.
In Richmond, the lobbying power of the tourism industry is evident every time the issue is debated before a legislative committee, said Fairfax schools lobbyist Judy Singleton.
"Generally, there are a dozen speakers all saying they want local school control," she said. "One person stands up from the entertainment industry and says it's an economic issue."
That person is usually Mary Huffard Kegley Scott, the director of government relations for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association. Scott said the state's Labor Day policy helps schools because it increases tax revenue over the holiday weekend.
"Obviously, the economic impact is still of paramount importance," she said. "We're concerned about it. And we still want the localities to enjoy the funding that they get from the tourism industry. We certainly do not want anyone to feel as if we are anti-education."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company