Open Wallets, Closed Schools

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan mandated a later start date for students in an effort to rake in more money from the tourism industry.

People and beach umbrellas pack the shores of Ocean City, Maryland. Hotels and other buildings also dot the coastline.
Beachgoers pack the shores of Ocean City, Maryland. (Matthew S. Gunby / AP)

While everyone is nursing their Labor Day hangovers, now seems a fine time to talk about education and public-school instructional calendars.

Since my teenage son started in Maryland public schools eight years ago, the school start date has been a week before Labor Day. Starting a couple of months ago, however, local officials began alerting parents that the 2017-18 school year might be starting a week earlier. Why? To allow for more instructional days before kids are hit with the annual barrage of high-stakes testing. On one level, I was kind of sad—I love the sloth of late summer. But for anyone familiar with the testing insanity that has gripped public schools in recent years, the proposed shift made perfect sense.

Testing aside, education professionals have other reasons for preferring an earlier start date. It allows for more days off to be scattered throughout the year while still meeting the mandated number of instructional days, giving kids and teachers breathing room at regular intervals. There’s also the rationale that an earlier start date helps limit “summer learning loss,” the tendency of kids (and especially poor kids) to forget a chunk of academic knowledge during the long summer break. This, too, sounds like reasonable grounds for an earlier start, especially when you consider that the traditional summer break came into being for reasons that no longer apply, including the nonexistence of air conditioning.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, however, is not buying any such arguments. On August 31, the first-term Republican unilaterally ruled that, henceforth, no school district in the state would be allowed to start until after Labor Day. (Any district looking to deviate must annually petition for a waiver based on, as the press release on Hogan’s order put it, “compelling justification.”) Why? Multiple reasons, the governor explained. First, to protect “the traditional end of summer,” by providing hardworking families extra time to frolic in the sun. (Along with delaying the start date, Hogan mandated that the school year must still end by June 15.) Second, to prevent kids from having to attend classes during the swelter of late August, which, Hogan insisted, is a particular burden on the Baltimore area schools without AC systems. And finally, to provide “an economic boost” to the state, especially the beachside communities along Maryland’s Eastern Shore—which, as it happens, was where Hogan held the press conference announcing his executive order.

Ah, tourism dollars. Now it all becomes clear.

It’s not hard to see why Hogan would want to push through such a change. On a basic level, the idea is broadly popular in the state. I mean, all things being equal, who doesn’t love the idea of a longer summer break? Well, besides teachers and other education professionals. But they’re a perpetual pain in Republicans’ backsides, so ticking them off is more a pro than a con for Hogan. As for parents, some might object to having to arrange a couple of extra weeks of summer child care, but the folks most impacted tend to be from poorer districts, who don’t much care for Hogan anyway. And while plenty of voters might question the wisdom of rejiggering school calendars in the service of tourism revenue, it’s not like they care enough to get all up in the governor’s face about it.

The tourism industry, by contrast, is going to love Hogan. A lot. And happy, prosperous business owners not only contribute more tax dollars to government coffers (Hogan’s office anticipates an increase in state and local annual tax revenue of $7.7 million),  they can also be awfully grateful to friendly politicians. Just ask lawmakers in Virginia, where a post-Labor Day school start has been the law since 1986, thanks to the state’s rich—and politically generous—amusement-park industry. Virginia’s law is, not coincidentally, known as The Kings Dominion law, in honor of the state’s most prominent theme park, Six Flags Kings Dominion.

After years of watching Virginia rake in all that extra tourism cash (not to mention all the political donations and free amusement-park tickets that Virginia lawmakers enjoy), Hogan clearly wanted his state on that particular gravy train. Yet since he took office last year, he has repeatedly failed to get Maryland’s Democratic-controlled legislature to pass such a bill. Who knows why for certain? Maybe state Dems are in the pocket of the teachers’ unions and the education industry more broadly. Maybe Democrats didn’t want to give Hogan a win on an issue that is especially popular among his suburban constituents. Maybe it’s because the school districts that most favor (and benefit from) an early start date tend to be in poor, urban areas, which tend to vote Democratic. Or maybe Maryland Democrats just hate the beach. For whatever mix of reasons, Hogan couldn’t get the law through, and it was making him crazy.

Now, I am sympathetic to the competing interests that politicians must juggle. It’s a tough job: lots of constituencies, lots of stress, lots of money on the line. That said, there is rich irony in a Republican governor giving the finger, not just to the state legislature, but to the two dozen local school boards whose job it has been to set school calendars—as school boards do in all but about a dozen states. Even if you don’t buy into any of educators’ arguments about the benefits of an earlier start date, what about Republicans’ endless fetishization of local control? Aren’t conservatives supposed to be all about devolving power to the level of government closest to the people?

Asked about this, Hogan’s office directed me to its official statements on the matter, one of which stresses that school boards still have “full ability to set their own academic calendar”—within Hogan’s newly mandated parameters, of course. In other words, they are basically ducking the question of local control.

Maybe this principle only applies when there isn’t a rich tourism industry to please and teachers unions to annoy.