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State report recommends calendar flexibility for low-performing schools

A newly-issued report from North Carolina’s nonpartisan Program Evaluation Division recommends state lawmakers sidestep wholesale changes to the state’s long-debated school calendar.

But it does offer at least one major sweetener for public education leaders by advising that lawmakers provide broad local flexibility to districts with low-performing schools, many of them situated in low-income regions of North Carolina.

Citing academic research on the impacts of “summer learning loss,” the agency notes for lawmakers that it’s the state’s poorest students who could benefit the most from an abridged summer break.

Monday’s 38-page report coincides with a resurgence of legislative interest in the North Carolina school calendar. GOP and Democratic lawmakers have filed a slew of bills already this year asking for local calendar flexibility for many, mostly rural, school districts.

In addition, a statewide House bill with support from some Republicans and Democrats would allow schools to resume as early as Aug. 10. The draft bill would also grant flexibility to districts over the number of instructional hours in the day, one way to bypass state requirements for the number of days in the school calendar.

Prior to 2004, local boards were allowed to set their own start and end dates. Some districts were beginning school before mid-August and adjourning in May. However, after lobbyists for tourism and parent groups began clamoring to preserve students’ traditional, extended summer break, the General Assembly mandated  in 2004 that schools start no earlier than Aug. 25 and end no later than June 10.

Now, with a wide-ranging coalition of education advocates calling for greater local flexibility in the state’s school calendar, today’s PED report has bypassed recommendations for statewide calendar reforms.

“The disagreement among stakeholders regarding when North Carolina should start and end the school year cannot be reconciled,” the report reads. “Any decision will be perceived as favoring the interests of some stakeholders over others.”

Given PED’s neutral stance on the matter, it’s unclear whether state lawmakers will take up one bill on the school calendar this year or, as indicated by the spate of local filings in the early days of this session, many local bills.

Yet the report does offer concessions to those who point out the disproportionate impacts of long summer breaks on the state’s poorer students.

From the PED report:

“Allowing school calendar flexibility as a mechanism for low-performing schools to address summer learning loss provides an opportunity to increase student performance. Peer-reviewed literature demonstrates that low-income students disproportionately suffer from summer learning loss in comparison to their middle and higher income peers. The literature shows low-income students could benefit from a modified school calendar with shorter breaks throughout the school year and targeted intervention during the breaks.”

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

In a letter responding to the report, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson reasserted calls for local district control and applauded the nod to “summer learning loss.”

According to Johnson’s letter, state law “restricts a local board’s ability to develop a school calendar that may meet the needs of its district.”

Johnson also points to frustration from parents that students’ first-semester exams are administered after winter break, meaning children are studying over the holidays.

“The (State Board of Education) and (Department of Public Instruction) believe that school calendars should be set by those elected officials closest to their communities, local school board members. Local board members can be accountable to their constituents if their district’s school calendar does not meet local expectations.”

Meanwhile, Johnson wrote to state officials that local flexibility for districts with low-performing schools could “provide more learning opportunities for students, and shorter summer breaks could decrease summer learning loss.”

PED officials say they interviewed stakeholders in public schools, parent groups, teachers, local school administrators and tourism advocates in developing the new report.

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