Fight brewing over school start date

By: Josie Speltz

Since the law was created back in the ‘80s, Iowa code has said that schools may not start earlier than the last week of August unless some pretty restrictive exceptions are met.

However, this policy has not been enforced. Instead the state education department has rubber stamped virtually all district requests to start their school years earlier. Only two out of the 338 schools in the state followed the guideline for start dates this year; the rest were able to sneak past without much concern from the state.

Next year, however, Gov. Terry Branstad has said no more. He has directed the education department to follow the restrictive law and make getting a waiver to surpass the set start date a more challenging deed to conquer. Schools must supply the Iowa Department of Education with a detailed reason backed with evidence as to why starting earlier impacts their schools in a positive way.

State Education Director Brad Buck in an email to The Des Moines Register has said, “Earlier start dates would be considered only if a district demonstrated that starting later would have a significant negative educational impact.”

Senator Jeff Danielson from Cedar Falls said he thinks this infringes on the views of locally elected school boards and the communities they represent. He favors a later start date without waivers and an emphasis on quality while kids are in school, rather than quantity. “Current debates are too focused on calendars and not enough on children. If we don’t fully fund local schools, the calendar is a moot point.”

Danielson said that since the property taxes of local citizens makes up a portion of school districts’ budgets, these districts should be allowed to start on their own schedules.

But, of course, most of district funds come from state taxes, so the greater enforcement of this law has been building up for over a decade, with the Iowa tourism aspect sparking a lot of the debate.

Starting school in early August cuts into the Iowa State Fair, which results in fewer youth being in attendance for the event. Business owners have also voiced their annoyance with the earlier start dates and the negative impact it can have on businesses that are only open during the summer.

On the other hand, educators have said that schools should be allowed to set their start dates based on what works best for the teachers and the students. If required to follow the guidelines next year, schools would likely not be able to finish their first semesters before winter break.

Science teacher Scott Bohlmann said, “I am not in favor of [starting in late August] because in my opinion there is not a lot to do in August when it is super hot and humid outside.I would rather have summer start in June when the weather is beautiful, and I can do a lot more stuff outdoors. It is just more favorable weather.”

Many staff and students in the school district have similar opinions to Bohlman, wanting to start school in early August rather than September. If schools have to start in September, it will likely result in students taking finals after break, which could be seen as a drawback for students who would have to study during that time off.

Lawmakers have proposed a bill that would enable schools to take finals before winter break in reply to the concern from many schools. This law would implement longer school days, making it easier for schools to get the needed 540 hours of school time in before winter break.  Two other bills that have been introduced to the Iowa legislature to allow district to have more freedom in determining their own start dates instead of being required to follow a set rule.

The restrictive waiver is only the starting point of the issue of an earlier start date. The department of education and those who are proposing to change the law are hoping to find a compromise that is somewhere between what each party wants.

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