Virginia’s largest school district will start its school year before Labor Day in 2017, becoming the latest school system to receive a waiver from a state law that was passed two decades ago to safeguard the state’s tourism industry.
The board of the Fairfax County school system voted 9 to 1 last week to move the start date to Aug. 28 in 2017, the first time in recent history that classes will start before Labor Day. The district, with about 186,000 students, has had enough snow days over the past decade — averaging more than eight in the five worst years — to qualify for the waiver from what is widely known as the Kings Dominion law, a reference to the popular theme park.
The state law requires schools to start after Labor Day unless they meet a threshold for weather-related cancellations or have alternative programs. Lawmakers and tourism boosters have argued that the law gives families an extra week and a long weekend to go on vacation, supporting a vital industry.
Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association, said the pre-Labor Day starts to the school year hurt local tourism hot spots such as Williamsburg and Virginia Beach. The trade group found in a 2008 study that if all schools adopted an early start, the move could cost the industry $275 million.
“There’s certainly concern. You’re talking about the fifth-largest private industry in the state,” Terry said. The shift to early school years “begins to impact what happens with employment, taxes collected and a number of things.”
But the post-Labor Day start has been unpopular among some school board members who want the authority to set school calendars. Former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) made the repeal of the law part of his education agenda. That effort was shot down in 2012.
“Local school jurisdictions should be allowed to design their own school year without interference from the state,” said board member Ryan McElveen (At Large).
Of 132 school divisions statewide, 80 qualified for waivers from the law this year, most because of weather-related cancellations, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Schools in Prince William and Loudoun counties, the state’s second- and third-largest school districts, started before Labor Day this school year and plan to do the same next year.
Virginia’s law makes it an outlier in the Washington region. The District’s public schools start classes before Labor Day. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland start before Labor Day, although there has been a recent push to require schools to start after the long weekend to boost tourism.
Those who support earlier start dates say the schedule gives students more time to prepare for end-of-course exams, including nationally administered Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests.
Fairfax County School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said that by being required to start school after Labor Day, the county’s students have been “perpetually disadvantaged” because they compete with students across the country who start far earlier.
“Some school districts even start at the beginning of August,” Schultz said at the board meeting last Thursday when she voted to start before Labor Day. “Those students have weeks, if not months or more, ahead of the curriculum against the standardized tests.”
Supporters of a pre-Labor Day start also argued that it will reduce down time in the classroom that can occur after students complete comprehensive state exams and before the school year lets out.
“We have to make the end of our year more meaningful,” said student board representative Ben Press, a senior at James Madison High School. He said many teachers are forced to rush through curricula at the end of the year to prepare for standardized exams but have little for students to do once the exams are over.
Despite overwhelming support on the board to move to an earlier start date, the results of a community survey were less definitive. The district surveyed nearly 42,000 parents of Fairfax County students, and 53 percent supported the early start to the school year. Among about 14,100 teachers, 64 percent supported it.