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Amid push for school calendar flexibility, N.C. lawmakers look to study effects on student achievement

A pair of bills filed in the state House of Representatives this week would grant local school districts more flexibility in developing their own calendar and launch a pilot project aimed at studying the effects of an amended school calendar on student achievement.

A bipartisan group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers filed House bills 389 and 375 amid a bevy of drafts already offered this session that would allow local school boards greater power over their calendar.

State law provides that public schools, with the exception of year-round schools, should return from their summer break no earlier than the Friday closest to Aug. 26 and complete school no later than the Friday closest to June 11.

But, given education research suggests shorter summer breaks may speed positive impacts on student achievement, some have long argued North Carolina officials should revise their statutes.

One proposal filed this week would give school boards the ability to reschedule their opening date to coincide with their local community colleges, providing they do not resume operations any earlier than Aug. 15.

Another bill gives 20 counties from across the state—many of them low-income, rural counties with struggling school systems—the option to participate in a three-year pilot program in which they would have the power to reconvene school around Aug. 10.

“These are counties that we’ve got to try something different,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-sponsored both bills. “Because what we’ve been doing is not working.”

Horn said House lawmakers have long sought to tinker with the school calendar, but failed to gain much traction in the state Senate.

This year, Horn said he believes there may be a greater willingness to take up the issue, pointing to the dozens of local calendar bills already in the works in both chambers and students’ greater access to digital education content.

“I’m not going to waste everybody’s time running bills that I know aren’t going to pass,” added Horn. “If I know I’m going to get whipped, I’m not going to get into the fight.”

Districts could begin the program as soon as the 2018-2019 school year, and officials with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction would provide annual reports that would detail the impact on student performance and summer internships.

Additionally, the State Board of Education and the Department of Commerce would separately report to UNC’s School of Government on the program’s effects.

N.C. Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union

Given different tourism seasons and community college and university calendars, critics complain the state’s public school calendar is out of sync and overly burdensome.

It’s an idea that’s seemed to gain steam with legislators from both parties, as well as N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson.

Johnson wrote in a letter to lawmakers in February the state’s current law “restricts a local board’s ability to develop a school calendar that may meet the needs of its district.”

This week’s proposals follow a nonpartisan report by the legislature’s Performance Evaluation Division in February that, while sidestepping any recommendations about wholesale changes, suggested the state’s poorer students would most benefit from a shorter summer break. 

Bickering over the school calendar has been ongoing for more than a decade in North Carolina. Before 2004, local boards could set their own start and end times, although dwindling summer breaks in some districts grew unpopular with some advocates for tourism and parents.

Horn said Friday that he believes “attitudes are changing” on the issue.

“If there’s a better a chance a student will succeed by adjusting the calendar, then let’s adjust the calendar,” Horn said.

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