Time for education to thrive

Published 9:07 pm Friday, February 10, 2012

It’s not unusual for public policy disputes to be couched in terms of conflicting priorities, and perhaps the most popular priority to put on one side of the equation is education. Whether it’s education versus defense spending, education versus business interests or education spending versus taxpayer relief, the call to protect our future by ensuring that education is always the top priority is so common as to have become a cliché.

It’s not that education isn’t important, either. But putting the debate that necessarily arises over public policy in such stark terms usually ignores the fact that things rarely are black and white, either/or propositions. Education is vitally important to our future, but so are defense and business and personal financial stability. There are few problems of public policy that are not best solved by a little of this and a little of that — in short, by an understanding that many things are important, and the best solutions are usually compromises.

Occasionally, though, the characterization of education set at odds against less deserving priorities that nonetheless get powerful support is an accurate one. Such is the case with Virginia’s Labor Day law, which requires public school systems to wait until after Labor Day to hold classes unless they receive a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education.

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The law, which dates back to 1986, has come to be known as the Kings Dominion Law, because it was expressly designed to protect that theme park and Busch Gardens from losing cheap labor as teenagers headed back to school as summer ended. Other tourism-related industries backed the legislation, as well, putting significant pressure on the General Assembly at the time to pass the law.

And there’s the rub. Virginia’s legislators chose to put the needs of the tourist industry ahead of the needs of Virginia’s students. There is evidence that starting school so late puts Virginia students behind those of other states when it comes to performance on standardized tests. The policy costs school systems more money, as they wind up paying to air condition schools in June while they’re finishing the school year. And it puts students at a disadvantage on meeting their Standards of Learning.

But legislators have a chance to fix their mistake this year. The House of Delegates already has passed a bill that would remove the Labor Day requirement for all public schools in Virginia. Similar legislation is pending in the state Senate.

It’s time for Virginia to recognize that Virginia’s tourist industry can no longer thrive at the expense of education. The Senate should pass this bill, and the governor should sign it. Virginia’s tourist industry will find a way to overcome the temporary headache.