By The Gazette Editorial Board
A recent dispute in the Iowa City school district over whether or not to hold classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is instructive for other districts and communities.
In previous years, Iowa City designated MLK Day as a staff work day on multicultural and gender issues, but no classes were held. This year, on Monday, classes are scheduled along with activities and lessons related to civil rights issues and a day of service. That didn’t sit well with some residents of the district, who last month criticized the decision as disrespectful and uninformed.
The school board then considered canceling classes. School officials consulted with the Iowa Department of Education and were told the school board cannot change the current calendar once the board and the state have approved it. Iowa City board members and officials decided not to buck the state, then designated board liaisons to community committees whose members had raised objections: the Coalition for Racial Justice and the Center for Worker Justice. The aim is to help the board better engage the black community and other minorities.
We think the district’s plan for MLK Day this year was well intentioned. However, not gauging and understanding the depth of the position of some residents before the calendar was approved last year appears to be at the heart of the dispute.
The Iowa City case does raise other questions for districts to consider. Should MLK Day always be a day with no classes? Or, should classes be held with special programming about this nation’s most respected civil rights leader and the historically significant events of his time?
Should Iowa, which observes MLK Day as a state holiday, mandate that all schools hold classes on this holiday? Some other option?
There are 10 federal holidays for federal employees, including MLK Day. A 2013 Bloomberg Bureau of National Affairs survey of 628 employers showed that 32 percent offer the day as a paid holiday for most or all of their workers while 11 percent sponsor programs or events to acknowledge Dr. King’s life and achievements, regardless of whether they will give the day off.
Iowa school districts traditionally don’t hold classes on Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, when it comes to MLK Day (third Monday in January) or George Washington’s Birthday (commonly known as Presidents Day, the third Monday in February), practices vary. The Iowa City district calendar schedules classes for this year’s Washington’s birthday. Cedar Rapids is not holding classes on either of those holidays, instead designating them for staff development. And there are other versions in our region.
NO STATE MANDATE
So what’s appropriate?
We don’t think a state mandate to cancel classes on MLK Day is in order. Districts should retain the ability to determine their own calendars and days off — and they will have even more flexibility when the new state requirement for hours in the classroom, instead of days in session, kicks in next year.
We do think state education officials should encourage districts to honor King’s legacy and landmark achievements. He is a unique figure in our history. He’s had more impact on our society and nation than many presidents.
Not scheduling classes on MLK Day should mean more than just free time for kids. It adds significance to the holiday, raising its symbolic significance. And community or school events or activities can enhance respect and understanding.
Certainly schools should be sure that King’s memory is honored and his contributions are noted on or near this holiday. If classes aren’t held on the holiday, the Friday before, for example, could include educational programming and community service project options for students — the national MLK Day of Service initiative is also part of this observance.
MORE THAN A DAY
Martin Luther King is a giant in our history who crusaded for all Americans to have the freedom and opportunities that live up to our nation’s ideals. He risked personal safety and eventually lost his life to an assassin.
We think schools should have the freedom to decide how to mark the MLK holiday. Listening to their communities, including minorities, is part of the process. And most important, they should ensure that civil rights history taught to students is more than a one-day event.
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