Over a dozen K-12 calendar flexibility bills filed in the House. Will they get a chance in the Senate?

Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham speaks after being sworn in during the opening session of the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH — Over a dozen bills have been filed in the North Carolina House of Representatives related to giving K-12 school districts more calendar flexibility but they may not be getting a look in the Senate. 

House Bill 86 offers statewide calendar flexibility while 13 others filed appear to only address certain counties.   

The current calendar law in place requires a minimum of 185 days or 1,025 hours of instruction. The law, first enacted in 2004 under Democratic leadership, also dictates a school year start date of no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26. Under that law, the end date for the school year is no later than the Friday closest to June 11. 

The statewide bill would move the start of school to no earlier than Aug. 10 and the end date of June 11 would remain the same. 

In an interview with North State Journal, Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) said he doesn’t see a need to change the law.  

“I don’t think there’s a need to change it,” Berger said. “If I thought there was a chance that changing it would improve outcomes as far as kids are concerned as far as school is concerned. I would certainly consider that.” 

Berger pointed out that neighboring states like Virginia and South Carolina both have K-12 calendar laws similar to that of North Carolina. In Virginia, the start date is no earlier than 14 days prior to Labor Day and South Carolina’s law doesn’t allow for school opening prior to the third Monday in August.  

Complaints about the current law have included wanting to accommodate students taking community college courses, making first-semester testing fall before the winter holiday break, as well as wanting to keep summer holiday time intact. 

The senate leader also said that “all the arguments that are being made now are exactly the same arguments that were being made back then.” 

“If you look at how many holidays, workdays, non-school days that take place between August and December,” said Berger referencing community college course scheduling. “It’s a pretty good number and I refuse to believe that they cannot align the calendar, if, in fact, it is that important as far as community colleges are concerned.” 

Since the law was passed, school districts have increasingly called for additional calendar flexibility. At the start of the past school year, multiple districts pushed back against the calendar law including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Cleveland, Gaston, Iredell-Statesville, Lee, Rutherford and Union. 

Cleveland, Gaston, and Rutherford County schools defied the law, starting school around Aug. 17. Those districts have yet to face any consequences legally, unlike Union County which reversed course in January following threat of legal action by parents in the district. 

Berger indicated he didn’t believe any legislative action would be taken with districts defying the law. 

“I think the action that should take place would be for local businesses, [and] parents to initiate legal action, like what was done in Union County,” Berger said. “I think that’s the way to deal with that.” 

The travel and tourism industry in the state has consistently pushed back on annual calls to change the calendar law. The groups cite increased revenues going from $14 billion to $26 billion since the law was enacted. 

A 2017 report by the Program Evaluation Division (PED) of the General Assembly was unable to independently verify those assertions that the school calendar affects business revenues. PED’s report also noted significant disagreement among stakeholders on start and stop dates that “cannot be reconciled. 

Berger said he had not really heard much from the tourism lobby more “than normal” on the topic this year. When it came to the tourism industry, Berger did mention that giving up the whole month of August for an earlier school year start “affects in many respects their business customers who might be able to frequent their businesses.” 

“It also impacts in some respect their workers,” said Berger. “Some of them still rely on some high school students in the summertime. And then there’s also families that are at the mercy of the school board in terms of whether or not they could take a vacation on August the 17th or not and, for some people, later in the summer is better for them than not.” 

He added that it was a “Failure, I think, on the part of local school boards to fully appreciate how decisions they make affect individual families.” 

In an earlier interview on calendar flexibility for districts, House K-12 Education Co-Chair John Torbett (R-Gaston) told North State Journal that it “was and wasn’t” a hard question to answer. 

“It’s kind of like you know the Pontius Pilate – I’m washing my hands of it, let someone else make that determination,” said Torbett. “But then I look at it and say, is the state ready for 115 different school start and stop dates? Because there’s under 115 LEAs [Local Education Authorities] that no doubt would pick a day other than next door neighbor to them.” 

Torbett mentioned that it might be easier to go back to a Memorial Day/Labor Day period of time for a traditional calendar school year. In order to do that, could mean removing teacher workdays, some electives, or putting electives online in order to keep core subjects aligned. He also said It might mean moving testing windows for the fall semester to before Christmas while making sure to align with community college calendars. 

“We honestly believe we can have much more highly educated kids come out of our system by having that period of time from Labor Day to Memorial Day,” said Torbett. He added families and tourism were happier with that possibility and it would leave “three good months in the summer to have a full-fledged summer school instead of just a few weeks of summer school.” 

When asked if Torbett’s Labor to Memorial Day calendar idea might be something to consider, Berger said “I’d be in favor of it.”