STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Who gets to decide when the school year starts? Not schools.

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

Tuesday morning, at 8:30, the first bell of the year rings at Congress Elementary in Grand Rapids.

Mrs. Howard is lining up her third graders.

Last week, she was running off last minute copies and sweating through her preparations in a school building with no air conditioning.

Yesterday, she and the rest of the teachers and staff at Congress were ready to go.

It’s not that anyone at this school is itching to get the year going earlier. It’s that this school, this district, doesn’t even have the option.

John Helmholdt is spokesman for Grand Rapids Public Schools.

"We determine the day school starts not based on the academic needs of children," he says. "But on the tourism industry."

In 2005, Michigan passed a law to prevent schools from opening before Labor Day. The main rationale behind the law was to allow families one last vacation weekend. The main promoters of the law came from the state’s tourism industry.

Helmholdt and many other school officials say that’s not how education policy should be set.

"Particularly for the lower-income students, when they’re more susceptible to summer learning loss, the start of school, the length of the school year, the length of the school day, these are real issues that we need to start talking about," Helmholdt says.

But it’s not just the tourism industry that wants the school year to start after Labor Day.

Tina Bruno heads a group called The Coalition for a Traditional School Year. It’s based in Texas, and advocates nationwide for laws that prevent schools from starting in August or sooner.

Bruno says she got involved with the issue after working at a low-performing school in San Antonio. One of the proposed fixes for the school was switching to a year-round calendar.

"When the consultants came in and started talking about it, it just sounded like the coolest thing in the world to me," she says. "And after experiencing it for a year, it was an absolute nightmare. Nothing that they promised came true."

And Bruno doesn’t buy the arguments that low-income kids suffer most from long summers. It is true that achievement gaps in schools get worse over the summer.

But Bruno says that happens even with short breaks.

"Research has shown very clearly that over a twelve month cycle, regardless of the calendar kids are following, they are going to learn and forget the same amount of material," she says.

The research is a little more mixed than Bruno lets on. Some studies have shown an advantage for some students in year round schools. But the evidence is far from conclusive.

In Michigan, year-round schools are allowed. Districts just have to get a waiver.

What’s not allowed is for traditional calendar schools to start in August so they can have more time off in the winter or spring.

Democratic State Representative Andy Schor introduced legislation that would allow them to do that. . 

Bottom line, he says, this shouldn’t be a tourism issue. It should be an education issue.

"If you look at the House Republicans, and the House Democrats agendas, they will say that education is top on their list," he says. "If that’s true, then this should be an education-related discussion, not a tourism-related discussion."

Schor introduced his legislation in June. It was referred to the House committee on tourism.  

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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