New Iowa rule may force districts to prove hardship to get school start waivers

But proposal might not settle longstanding debate on school start times

March 28, 2014 | 6:21 pm

A new rule being proposed by Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration would force school districts to document academic and financial hardships to get what are now routine waivers on school start dates.

The new rule will face its first test when it’s put before the Iowa State Board of Education this week for a vote.

Department of Education officials say the rule is a compromise aimed at getting back to the intent of state statute and gives neither education groups nor tourism industry advocates everything they want.

But whether it settles a decades-old argument about when school should start — or if the rule will even take effect — remains to be seen.

“What this (proposed rule) does is put us more in compliance with state law,” said Mike Cormack, a former state representative and a policy liaison with the Department of Education. “What we have here is good people looking at the same issue from different sides, and we came down right in middle.”

AN OLD ARGUMENT

State statute requires school to start no earlier than a day — typically the Monday — during the calendar week that includes Sept. 1.

But districts are allowed to ask for waivers, which are routinely granted. In the 2012-2013 school year, for example, only seven of the state’s more than 300 school districts didn’t receive a waiver. That’s been a sore point with Iowa’s tourism industry, which says earlier school start times cut into family vacation time and summer employment for high school students.

Education groups argue that school start dates should be a local decision made by people who know their communities best.

“Any time anyone brings up the school calendar, it becomes a very big debate,” said Kathy Christie, a researcher and vice president at the Education Commission of the States. “When to start school really depends on a lot of factors, so the research out there on how it affects student achievement is not that good. Sometimes, it comes down to whether the building has air-conditioning or not.”

Under the proposed rule, schools still can request waivers, but there are two levels of review.

For waivers that fall within seven days before the statutory requirement, a school board has to hold a public hearing on the start date, which, in most cases, would be a regularly school board meeting. Once the public hearing is held, the Department of Education director or a designee will have an “expedited review” of the waiver request.

School districts that want to go beyond the seven days, however, must prove that a later start date would have a “significant negative impact” on the students and district. The rule requires proof of those impacts through test score data, budget information and staffing considerations.

“It’s so frustrating,” said Mary Gannon, attorney for the Iowa Association of School Boards. “We spent the last two years working on reforms to K-12 education and gave the governor support on key components of that. Then they come out with this, which has nothing to do with student achievement.”

Cormack said that if the rule were in effect today, 70 percent of the school districts in the state would qualify for the first-tier waivers and 98.5 percent are within three days of that cutoff.

TIMING

The rule, however, wouldn’t be in effect until the 2014-15 school year and then only if it passes through two hearings at the state Board of Education and two reviews by a state administrative rules panel plus at least one additional public hearing. The first state Board of Education hearing is Thursday and a public hearing is set for Sept. 10. The administrative rules committee date hasn’t been set yet.

If everything goes off without a hitch, the rule would become statute by Nov. 20 at the earliest.

“I think it’s a great compromise, and I commend the governor’s office for trying to work with all the parties involved,” said Iowa State Fair Manager Gary Slater.

He thinks it gives school officials the flexibility they need while still starting the school year after the fair ends, in most cases. The Iowa State Fair runs from Aug. 8-18 this year.

“We have some excellent schools,” Slater said. “But children can have an educational experience in a variety of ways, and one of those is at the fair.”

Dan Smith, executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa, said his association “strongly believes this should be a local decision.”

He thinks the rule isn’t the compromise the Branstad administration makes it out to be.

Eastern Iowa Tourism Executive Director Carrie Koelker, whose Dyersville-based association helps coordinate regional tourism efforts, said tightening the rules shouldn’t harm educational outcomes for students.

“I have four children, so education is a huge issue for me,” she said. “I think the schools we have can still get what they need to get done with a late August start. I really don’t see why not.”

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