Op-Ed by PETER MAURER
The so-called ‘Dog Days of Summer’ are just about over, named after the fact that early-rising farmers would start to see Orion the Hunter’s companion dog, Sirius, in the early morning sky, hanging low in the southeast.
While many of us think the term has to do with hot August days with lazy dogs napping in the shade of a porch, its roots are actually astronomical. But the Dog Days are an endangered species for a growing number of Michigan students, more of whom are starting school before Labor Day, a strange phenomenon that has many parents perplexed.
The answer has to do with a state law that was passed over a decade ago giving the county intermediate school districts (ISD) to power to determine when major breaks – Christmas and spring – would occur for their county public school districts.
The idea was that since ISDs provide a myriad of ancillary and special services to their local districts, they should be allowed to establish a common vacation schedule. That way, students and parents wouldn’t have a potential gap between what was then the ISD vacation schedule and the vacation of their individual ‘home’ school district. Although well-intended, it resulted in some unintended consequences.
Even though the majority of public school districts at that time were having Christmas vacations in the 9-11 day range, many ISDs opted to set a 2-week (16-day) Christmas vacation. This added days to the end of the school year, with students going nearly a week longer into June than typical. Throw in those districts that still wanted a full week off in February, along with Thanksgiving week Wednesday, and there were many districts whose calendars had students in class up to the last week of June.
Logically, when parents and students complained about that, the districts responded with calendars that had schools starting before Labor Day, so that students could get out a little earlier in June. In essence, summer vacation was still being shortened, but now at both ends rather than just one.
But after just a few years of schools starting in August, Michigan’s powerful and influential Tourism Council marched into Lansing and demanded something be done. The tourist businesses throughout Michigan had noticed a precipitous drop in sales the last half of August, as students and parents were home working and going to school, rather than playing in the lakes and boats that grace this state.
Naturally, the state government put business before schools (it was only a few years later that this same auspicious group of GOP lawmakers cut the school budget by $2 billion and gave it to Big Business as a tax cut) and, once again, made in illegal for districts to start school before Labor Day. Concurrently, the Great Recession hit, and school budgets were decimated, so the state allowed local districts to reduce the number of school days, but increase the length of each day. So long as 1098 instructional hours were met, schools could meet less often, in some cases, 170 or fewer.
When that plan backfired, the state then again mandated a minimum of 180 days of instruction, with a grace period determined by the local collective bargaining agreements. You can guess what happened next. As soon as those grace periods expired and more districts went back to 180 days, the calendar was under pressure once again. So, the state started giving out a ‘limited’ number of exceptions for Christmas vacation, although there are over 150 districts who this year have one of the coveted exceptions.
People, it comes down to this – unlike when we went to school with a short Christmas break, no mid-winter break, and going to school on the Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, you cannot today have all those things and still start after Labor Day and get out in early June. Something has to give, and it appears that Labor Day is what had to be moved – into the school year rather than just before its start.
And just wait until more schools start using ‘balanced’ school calendars. The Tourism council will be apoplectic.
Email Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org