Labor Day bill passes House

Published 11:00 pm Friday, February 10, 2012

Labor Day: This map shows school divisions that have received waivers to open before Labor Day. The vast majority of divisions, especially in the western part of the state, have received weather-related waivers so that they are able to build snow days into their schedule.

By Charles Couch

Capital News Service

Virginia school districts finally may be able to start classes before Labor Day without getting special state permission under a bill that the House approved and sent to the Senate.

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Delegates voted 76-23 last week to approve House Bill 1063, sponsored by Delegate Robert Tata, R-Virginia Beach, and a bipartisan group of 40 other legislators. The bill now is before the Senate Education and Health Committee. Delegate Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, voted against the bill.

It remains uncertain whether the House measure will survive in the upper chamber; the Senate committee killed a similar Senate bill on a 9-6 vote last month.

“I’d say it’s a 50-50 chance,” said Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who was co-patron of HB 1063. “I support the bill, and I have always supported bills that would leave it to the localities to set their school calendar.”

The legislation seeks to allow public schools to start class before Labor Day at their own discretion. That would overturn what has become known as the “Kings Dominion law,” which requires school boards to obtain a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education if they want students to report before Labor Day.

McClellan said the bill would give teachers more time to instruct students before they take standardized tests and nationally administered exams.

For example, high schools nationwide give advanced placement and International Baccalaureate exams on the same day. In school systems that start class before Labor Day, students have an advantage on these tests because of the extra days of education, McClellan said.

“You have our students who are competing on those tests with students who have had two more weeks of instruction, and that’s just not really fair,” she said.

Moreover, Virginia students taking the state’s Standards of Learning tests cram in a year’s worth of information before the SOLs, and afterward they still have a month before school lets out, McClellan said.

The General Assembly passed the law requiring schools to start after Labor Day in 1986. It was intended as a temporary measure “to help Virginia’s tourism industry, whose officials said pre-Labor Day school openings were taking student workers before the tourism season ended,” said Charles Pyle, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education.

Two years later, the measure became permanent.

Opponents of HB 1063 still argue that opening schools before Labor Day could hurt the industry. Labor Day weekend marks the traditional end of the high tourism season, said Delegate John Cox, a Republican who represents Hanover County, where the Kings Dominion theme park is located.

“In 2011, the Virginia tourism industry generated $18.2 billion worth of economic activity. That supported 204,000 jobs and $1.29 billion in state and local taxes,” Cox said during the House debate over the bill. “I hope we will maintain Virginia’s post-Labor Day school start date.”

Under current law, schools must open after Labor Day unless they apply with “good cause” to the Department of Education for a waiver to open earlier, Pyle said. Generally, school divisions receive waivers if they frequently must close because of inclement weather such as snow days during the winter season, Pyle said.

The Education Department also gives waivers if a school has an experimental program, such as a year-round school program.

Seventy-seven of the 132 Virginia school divisions received waivers for this school year.

McClellan said the number of waivers has made the “Kings Dominion law” moot.

“Now that the exception has become the rule, it doesn’t make sense to still tell the rest of the schools, ‘You have to open after Labor Day.’”