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Two weeks into the Virginia General Assembly’s 2015 session, legislators in both the House of Delegates and Senate have introduced bills seeking to amend a state law that requires school divisions to start the academic year after Labor Day.
It is popularly known as the “Kings Dominion Law,” and it has divided legislators, regional leaders and school officials since it came into effect in 1986.
The law was passed 29 years ago largely due to lobbying by the state’s tourism industry. Support for the law from Virginia’s multiple amusement parks — including Kings Dominion — inspired its popular nickname.
In general, the law requires public schools in Virginia to open no earlier than the day after Labor Day, giving the state’s tourism industry one final weekend of summer vacation to cash in on before the school year starts.
Figures compiled in 2010 by the Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association suggest the total economic impact of starting school after Labor Day totaled $369 million.
Karen Riordan, president of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance, said changing the law would force localities to lose out on that revenue, and could lead to higher taxes to make up the difference.
“I don’t think the business community wants to see that happen,” she said. “[The law] keeps our taxes low, and Williamsburg has one of the lowest tax burdens in all of Virginia.”
The state-mandated start time can create headaches for school administrators tasked with crafting schedules for the coming school year, as the day on which the holiday falls changes from year to year. Labor Day is federally recognized as the first Monday in September, placing the earliest start date for Virginia schools anywhere from Sept. 2 through 7, depending on the year.
At the same time, Virginia law requires school divisions to schedule the equivalent of 180 days of class time for each academic year. School divisions are forced to make tough choices in order to prevent the school year from stretching into July.
“The structure is pretty restricted,” Williamsburg James City County Schools Deputy Superintendent Olwen Herron said. “It restricts your ability to assign staff development days, addressing inclement weather when it does hit. It’s tricky to navigate.”
The current draft for WJCC’s 2015-16 academic calendar begins Sept. 8, with graduation slated for June 18, 2016. To meet the 180-day requirement and meet regional obligations, winter break has been cut from 10 instructional days to eight.
The law does allow for some school divisions to apply for waivers to open before Labor Day. The most common is the weather waiver for school divisions experiencing an average of eight weather-related closings over any five of the previous 10 years.
According to the Virginia Department of Education, 72 school divisions of the state’s 132 divisions received waivers for the 2014-15 school year.
The law currently has a geographic divide, with most school divisions in the western half of the state receiving waivers allowing them to start before Labor Day, while eastern divisions start after the holiday.
Members of the school boards for both Williamsburg-James City County and York County School Division have also come out against the law as it is currently written.
While school divisions in Virginia are largely united in opposition to the law, legislative support is divided by geography. Legislators from tourism-heavy areas of the state, like the Historic Triangle and Virginia Beach, typically support the law, while legislators from Northern Virginia more often support its repeal.
“The calls to change it are primarily coming from people where tourism is not a driver,” Riordan said. “When I talk to people in Northern Virginia, they never thought of the economic impact.”
Opponents of the law usually advance three main arguments against the Labor Day requirement. The first focuses on the issue of local control.
WJCC School Board member Ruth Larson (Berkeley) said setting school calendars should be decided at the local level, and repealing the Kings Dominion Law would give school divisions increased flexibility in determining their schedules.
YCSD School Board member Cindy Kirschke agreed, saying the state’s tourism industry should not dictate when school starts in Virginia.
The second common argument against the law focuses on national test scheduling. Certain competitive tests, like the Advanced Placement exam, are scheduled nationally. Starting after Labor Day, opponents of the law say, forces Virginia students to play catch-up with their peers nationally.
“Our students starting in September are at a disadvantage, while other students, they’re a month into school,” Kirschke said. “Students in August get a head start.”
Del. Jim LeMunyon (R-67), a legislator from Northern Virginia who supports a repeal of the law, said students in a neighboring state like North Carolina could be hundreds of pages into their textbooks before Virginia students return to school several weeks later.
The other common argument for repeal is the issue of efficiency. With many standardized tests and national exams scheduled early in May, opponents of the law say Virginia students are left with nearly a month of class time without material to cover.
“Once [the tests] are done, kids don’t have a lot to do,” LeMunyon said. “That’s not a criticism of teachers — they’re trying to do the best they can — but why would you pay $50 million a day to keep the schools open?”
LeMunyon said it would make more sense to shift the school year back several weeks to maximize the value of the days at the beginning and end of the academic year.
Local school leaders have suggested several means of opposing the law. YCSD School Board President Mark Medford said school boards throughout the state needed to lobby legislators for repeal.
At last year’s WJCC School Board retreat, Elise Emanuel (City of Williamsburg) suggested regional school divisions should take advantage of the waiver process by submitting their own requests to show their dissatisfaction with the law.
The law’s supporters say its opponents are ignoring the economic realities of its impact.
Del. Monty Mason (D-93), whose district comprises parts of the Historic Triangle, supports the law and argues repeal would come at a cost.
Citing figures from the Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association, Mason said allowing school divisions to start before Labor Day would cut the number of summer travel days for Virginia’s tourism industry, costing the state $369 million in revenue, including $104 million in wages and benefits.
Opponents counter that allowing schools to start before Labor Day would not cut short the summer holidays, but shift it backward several weeks, limiting any negative economic impact.
At the same time, other states in the Southeast — even tourism-heavy Florida — do not have laws mandating post-Labor Day starts for schools.
“Other states don’t have this kind of law, and the sun still rises,” LeMunyon said.
Data collected by the VHTA suggests early summer holidays do not have the same economic influence as late summer holidays, decreasing as much as 20 percent in total impact.
Riordan also argued Virginia has a shorter tourist season than other states in the Southeast.
“Tourism is a year-round season for [Florida],” she said. “It’s a different state with a different economy, different weather. I don’t see the comparison.”
Mason added officials in neighboring states were currently exploring their own version of the Kings Dominion Law. A task force in Maryland recommended in May the state adopt a post-Labor Day start law for schools.
Supporters also say the law’s opponents rely on anecdotal evidence when it comes to the law’s educational impact.
A 2015 VHTA study, released Wednesday and conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University education professor John McMillan, suggested no correlation between when the school years starts and performance on Standards of Learning exams.
State Sen. Tommy Norment (R-3), whose district covers portions of the Historic Triangle, said earlier start times leading to better academic performance was a “fictitious” argument. He also said he did not believe the final weeks of the school year after testing were wasted time.
“It escapes me why those last few weeks could not be a valuable educational experience,” he said.
Mason said the VHTA study confirmed what many in the tourism industry had known for years, but admitted it was not a complete picture, as it only covered SOL exams. He said he supported conducting a similar study for the law’s effects on AP test scores, and if a correlation were to be discovered, would support conversations on changing the law.
Eight bills have been introduced during the General Assembly’s 2015 session — four in the House of Delegates and four in the Senate — that alter the current post-Labor Day requirement for the start of the school year.
Seven of the eight bills would scrap the Labor Day requirement entirely, and are currently waiting for action in the House and Senate Committees on Health and Education.
HB 1585, sponsored by Del. Chris Stolle (R-83), would allow schools failing to achieve full accreditation to receive a waiver to start before Labor Day. It passed the House of Delegates in an 84-13 vote Jan. 26.
While supporters have successfully defended the law against challengers since 1986, some legislators think a change may be on the horizon.
Norment said he suspected the tide may be turning against the law.
“I remain supportive, but eventually the law is going to have so many exemptions for individual school divisions, it could just as well be repealed,” he said. “We’re trying to find some middle ground or a compromise position.”