Iowa’s New Start Date

Yesterday, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad sent a letter to Iowa Department of Education Director Brad Buck requesting that they “no longer automatically grant waivers to the 1983 state law that says school shall begin no sooner than a day in the calendar week in which the first day of September falls.” In response to his letter, Director Buck issued a letter to Iowa school leaders saying “Effective immediately, the Department will no longer automatically grant waivers of the school start date…”
Background
The 1983 law is Iowa Code section 279.10. Section 1 states:

“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. However, if the first day of September falls on a Sunday, school may begin on a day during the calendar week which immediately precedes the first day of September.”

Section 4 details the waiver process:

The director of the department of education may grant a request made by a board of directors of a school district stating its desire to commence classes for regularly established elementary and secondary schools prior to the earliest starting date specified in subsection 1. A request shall be based upon the determination that a starting date on or after the earliest starting date specified in subsection 1 would have a significant negative educational impact.

In July of 2014, the Iowa Legislature passed House File 215 which, in Section 81, gave school boards the option to choose between 180 school days or 1080 hours for the length of the school year.

In his December 12 letter, Governor Branstad cited unnecessary interference with families’ summer plans and seasonal hiring as well as students missing class to participate in 4-H, FFA, and other Iowa State Fair activities as his reasons for asking Director Buck to no longer automatically grant waivers. Director Buck cites receiving “numerous complaints from parents and other community members alike about waivers of the school start date law.”

Thoughts
While I don’t have any issues with school starting closer to September 1, I am a bit concerned with the means the Governor is using, the implications of his letter, and the response across the state of Iowa.

What is driving this change from Terrace Hill and the Iowa Department of Education? The Governor and Director Buck specifically say:

  • family summer plans
  • seasonal hiring
  • 4-H, FFA, and other Iowa State Fair activities
  • numerous complaints from parents and other community members

Branstad went as far as to say an earlier start date “does nothing to improve the quality of education.” Where is his data? His and Director Buck’s reasons for enforcing the September 1 start date are based around complaints from Iowa community members and businesses, not from educational professionals. In their December 12 article about these letters, the Des Moines Register says 336 of Iowa’s 338 school districts (99.4%!) applied for and received waivers to start earlier than September 1 in the 2013-14 school year. I know that one of these two districts that did not apply for a waiver was the Mason City school district. They did not apply for an earlier start due to major construction occurring within the district, wanting to maximize the amount of time for construction to be completed without students in the buildings.

I am curious how the Iowa High School Athletic Association is going to respond. Their current start date for high school football practice is August 10th, three full weeks before the earliest possible first day of school. Their current date for the first football game is August 27th, the Friday before the earliest possible first day of school.

I am also curious how Iowa’s Community Colleges and Regent Universities are going to respond. There are thousands of Iowa high school students who are dual enrolled in post-secondary institutions earning college credit while still in high school. Currently, the Des Moines Area Community Colleges will start on August 20th, seven school days before the earliest possible start date for Iowa schools. Iowa State University is scheduled to start on August 24th, five school days before the earliest possible start date for Iowa schools. How will this later start date effect these students?

I am curious how this impacts students in Advanced Placement classes across the state of Iowa. The College Board sets national dates for taking AP exams. For the 2014-2015 school year, exams are set for May 4-8 and 11-15, 2015. District start dates for the 2014-2015 school year ranged from August 11th to September 2nd. If districts were forced to start as late as September 2nd this year, they would miss out on up to three weeks of possible instruction prior to the AP exams. Is this a “significant negative educational impact” that the state law requires?

The response in the comment sections of the various news sources shows that we as educators have much to do in the way of educating the general public about what we do. There is a lack of understanding about the professional development requirements teachers and school districts have. A higher importance is being placed on students being able to attend their grandparents anniversaries than attending school. I am curious how many students participated in 4-H, FFA, and other Iowa State Fair activities as a percentage of the total students in Iowa. I am curious how many families missed school or chose not to take a late August vacation because of the early start date, again as a percentage of the total students in Iowa. How many students were seasonal employees that couldn’t work in late August as a percentage of the total students in Iowa?

Again, I am not against having to start as late as September 1. Nor am I against the Iowa State Fair or any of the activities with which our students are associated. I just fear that our Governor and Director of Education have made rash decisions based on the voices of a vocal minority with deep pockets. What is this going to mean for our students?

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