Wedneday morning, students in the Springville, Linn-Mar, North Linn and Monticello community school districts will engage in those annual rituals of reading rules and getting class details.
These learners are already a little behind, though, at least compared to their Mount Vernon counterparts, who began the 2012-13 school year with a morning of classes Tuesday.
The remainder of Eastern Iowa districts will begin classes later this week and throughout next week.
The state law governing when districts begin their school year is concrete, at least in theory: “each regularly established elementary and secondary school shall begin no sooner than a day during the calendar week in which the first day of September falls but no later than the first Monday in December.”
But by the time Sept. 1 rolls around, buildings in 340 of the state’s 348 school districts will already have opened their doors for the current year.
That’s because the Iowa Department of Education has granted waivers that allow 97.7 percent of school districts to start their school years early on the basis of avoiding “significant negative educational impact,” a phrase not defined in the statute.
“Their interpretation is such that there’s no way under the law, the way the law is configured, that there really is no way to say ‘no’ to a waiver request if it’s brought on a local level,” said Mike Cormack, policy liaison for the education department. “I know at least, current practice is they’re all accepted. I’m unaware of ones that were not.”
The status quo could soon change depending on the findings of the department’s School Instructional Time Task Force, an 18-member group led by Cormack charged in part with studying a statewide school start date.
When the school year starts is a perennial issue in Iowa, with the most recent chapter including a 56-44 House vote in April to make the fourth Monday in August the first day of school for elementary and secondary learners.
Administrators who want to retain control over their districts’ calendars are on one side. On the other is the tourism industry, representatives from which argue that the state could reap millions in financial gains if the school year began in September.
Shirley Phillips, the executive director of Sac Economic Tourism and Development in Sac City, argued the “blatantly overused” waivers for early start dates are “penalizing our businesses which supply the tax dollars to support education in our state.”
“We fund education first, which I don’t have a problem with, but let’s not shut businesses down to fund education,” said Phillips, a member of the task force and Travel Federation of Iowa. “All those venues are losing money and they also lose their workforce.”
That fight, according to Cormack, leaves the Legislature in the middle and the Department of Education in a tough spot.
“As a department, we are truly neutral on it,” he said. “It would make it easier for us if there was some clarity.”
Beginning even a few days or a week before to the state-mandated date makes a difference, according to Cedar Rapids Community School District Superintendent Dave Benson.
“We recommend that because these are good solid days for instruction and the high school activity associations have already started practice,” said Benson, whose district starts school on Aug. 21. He said he feels no pressure to open his schools’ doors any earlier, despite bordering districts where instruction begins this week.
Linn-Mar Superintendent Katie Mulholland said beginning instruction today allows curriculum to be delivered in accordance with the district’s four-quarter calendar and have students complete exams in time for winter and spring breaks, thus finishing the year by June.
“The most significant negative educational impact would be to have students come back after winter break and have one week of instruction and then take exams which would occur if school started after Labor Day,” Mulholland wrote in an email. “A later start risks pushing the school year into mid-June, which then becomes problematic if we need to add back snow days.”
Benson also hopes not to nudge the academic year into June, namely to avoid rescheduling high school commencement ceremonies.
“We have contract dates with venues and whether or not those venues would be available would be an unknown,” he said. “If we lose those 10 plus days before the Memorial Day weekend, with inclement weather, we would be getting out the fourth week of June.”
According to the Department of Education, the School Instructional Time Task Force recommendations and designs for a pilot program to extend the school year or day must be delivered to the state Board of Education, Legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad by Oct. 15.
Benson and Mulholland are in favor of maintaining the waiver system, agreeing that different districts have diverse needs and should be able to design their calendars to meet them.
“If schools in the locale of the tourist attractions want to start later, that should be their choice,” Mulholland wrote.