by NATHAN INKS
With the passing of Labor Day, students across Michigan are returning to school. Yet despite the state law that generally prohibits schools from starting before Labor Day, tens of thousands of students have already been in school since August; in fact, more school districts across the state have received a waiver from the Michigan Department of Education in order to start prior to Labor Day than ever before—123 districts to be exact.
The intent of the 1999 law generally barring school districts from starting before Labor Day was no doubt well intentioned; the law was passed to increase revenue to the state’s tourism industry, as July and August are the peak months for tourism in Michigan. The law achieved its goal according to a 2016 analysis from the Anderson Economic Group of 2007 tourism spending—the law led to an increase in annual tourism spending estimated to be between $20 and $23 million.
However, some in the state legislature are questioning whether the state’s tourism industry should be the driving factor behind education policy. Senator Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy) introduced a bill earlier this year that would restore the right of school districts to start before Labor Day without state approval.
While there are important discussions to be had about whether mandating that schools start after Labor Day is good or bad for students, it is becoming increasingly clear that the status quo simply does not make sense. If the Legislature believes that schools can be required to start after Labor Day without sacrificing the quality of students’ education, it should simply mandate that all schools start after Labor Day without any exceptions. On the other hand, if the Legislature believes that there may be circumstances that warrant allowing schools to start prior to Labor Day, it makes much more sense to restore control of the starting date to the local school districts.
The current law requires that a school district seeking a waiver fall under one of the statutorily created exemptions to the post-Labor Day requirement. Reasons for exemption range from a district implementing a year-round school plan to aligning its calendars with colleges and/or universities; other school districts are granted waivers in order to allow for increased class time that is built into a reform plan—something typically seen in low achieving districts.
Under an amendment to the law enacted in 2016, an intermediate school district—a county or multi-county level agency that assists local school districts—can obtain a waiver for all of its local school districts for three years. This means that between the local school districts and intermediate school districts that secured waivers this year the percentage of local school districts that had the ability to start prior to Labor Day was over 40%. If nearly half the state’s schools are exempt from a mandate, is it really even a mandate?
With the ever-increasing number of waivers being granted, it makes much more sense to return the decision of when to start school back to local school districts, as local district boards, principals, and superintendents are much more knowledgeable about the needs of their districts and students. However, if the Legislature decides not to take that approach for some reason, it should seriously consider reigning in the number of waivers that are granted, as the benefits of the post-Labor Day “mandate” seem to be diminishing more and more each year as more and more waivers are granted.