The case for waivers
Our view: Board should evaluate school calendars on education, not tourism
Members of the Maryland State Board of Education — particularly some appointees of Gov. Larry Hogan — showed some real backbone this week in effectively inviting local school districts to apply for waivers to the governor’s executive order requiring that public school start after Labor Day. Their job is to make decisions to promote and improve Maryland’s system of public education, not to improve Maryland’s tourism economy, and their commitment to “expeditiously” approve non-conforming school calendars provided local boards offer “reasonable explanations of the educational benefits to students” is entirely consistent with that mission.
The governor’s office insists that the board cannot approve any waivers before formal regulations are adopted, but the board instead is seeking to operate under interim guidelines in approving schedules for the 2017-2018 school year. The conflict is reminiscent of the push-back Mr. Hogan received from the Inter-agency Committee on School Construction after he and Comptroller Peter Franchot voted to withhold millions in construction and renovation money from Baltimore City and Baltimore County schools unless they installed window air conditioners in all classrooms without central air before the start of this academic year. That action ignored the logistical impossibility of such a timetable under the constraints of state procurement law and other inconvenient details, and this one ignores the reality that getting a set of regulations on a controversial topic approved in 90 days, as a spokesman for the governor predicted, is highly unlikely. Not only does the board have to develop the regulations but they would need approval by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, and given that the legislature has rejected a post-Labor Day mandate in the past, that may well not be easy.
Governor Hogan’s executive order says the state board has “sole discretion” to approve one-year waivers to the requirement that school begin after Labor Day and end no later than June 15 “based on compelling justification.” It should be entirely possible for the state board to grant waivers liberally while adhering to that standard. From an educational policy perspective, there are no small number of “compelling justifications” for districts to start the school year earlier than Governor Hogan’s order would allow.
Summer learning loss. The landmark Beginning School Study tracked a random sample of Baltimore City schoolchildren over a 20-year period beginning in1982, when they were in first grade. It found that while all students lose ground in math over the summer vacation, low-income students lose two to three months worth of reading skills while more affluent peers post slight gains. By the fifth grade, that differential can place lower-income students nearly three years behind in reading. Those losses can have lasting consequences on rates of high school graduation and college attendance. Baltimore City schools’ summer vacation was 10 weeks this year. Had Mr. Hogan’s order been in effect, it would have been nearly 12 weeks long. Avoiding a schedule that exacerbates summer learning loss would certainly seem like a “compelling justification.”
Standardized testing. Even in the state’s best school systems, results on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, better known as the PARCC exams, were middling, with only about half of students receiving passing grades last year. The dates when those tests are given are not entirely within Maryland’s control; they must be administered in concert with other states during windows of time in the fall and spring. Similarly, Advanced Placement tests — which Maryland students have typically done exceptionally well at — are also given on fixed dates in the spring. Maximizing the number of instructional days before those tests in order to give students a better chance to succeed sounds like a “compelling justification.”
Professional development. One idea districts have contemplated to cram more instructional days into the Labor Day-June15 window is to eliminate some professional development days. But professional development isn’t just fluff; a Council of Chief State School Officers paper from 2008 found that well designed professional development programs can significantly boost student achievement. But those that were most successful were school-based, not ad hoc opportunities for individual teachers, and included substantial commitments of time — typically 50 hours or more. Preserving those opportunities would also amount to a “compelling justification.”
Some school systems — including the state’s largest, Montgomery County — have already hinted that they might seek waivers. Based on their decision this week, we have confidence that the state school board will evaluate them as it should — not based on politics or tourism but on what’s best for our children’s education.