State education board rejects rule change on K-12 start dates

Last week brought a good reminder that state boards and commissions don’t always rubber stamp the governor’s desired policies. Although Governor Terry Branstad has made clear that he wants to push back the start of the K-12 school year in Iowa, the State Board of Education on August 1 voted five to two against a Department of Education proposed rule change. Background and further details are after the jump.

Bleeding Heartland previously covered Branstad’s commitment to later school start dates here. Seeking to balance the interests of the tourism industry with educators, the Iowa Department of Education had drafted new rules making it more difficult for school districts to receive a waiver to begin the academic year before August 19.

Dar Danielson’s report for Radio Iowa summarized arguments raised by both sides at the August 1 State Board of Education meeting. The same page includes a link to the audio of the public comments on the proposal.

Kudos to the five board members who resisted strong pressure from the Branstad administration to put the tourism industry’s concerns first. Education research suggests that long summer breaks impede students’ progress. As Matthew Yglesias discussed recently in Slate,

The country claims to take schooling seriously, but the school calendar says otherwise. There’s no other public service that we would allow to just vanish for months at a time. […]

The entire issue tends to vanish from public debate, because the educated, affluent people who run the debate don’t particularly suffer from it. Summer vacation costs money, but prosperous parents are happy to spend it on their kids. […]

The burden on parents is segmented by income, and the impact on children is as well. A 2011 RAND literature review concluded that the average student “loses” about one month’s worth of schooling during a typical summer vacation, with the impact disproportionately concentrated among low-income students. “While all students lose some ground in mathematics over the summer,” RAND concluded, “low-income students lose more ground in reading while their higher-income peers may even gain.” Most distressingly, the impact is cumulative. Poor kids tend to start school behind their middle-class peers, and then they fall further behind each and every summer, giving teachers and principals essentially no chance of closing the gap during the school year. Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Steffel Olson of Johns Hopkins University have research from Baltimore indicating that a majority of the achievement gap between high- and low-socioeconomic-status students can be attributed to differences in summer learning loss.

It’s not clear whether Baltimore’s results apply to the national population, but it’s shocking that impacts of this scale exist anywhere. Even worse, for many poor kids, subsidized school lunches on which they depend for sustenance essentially vanish during the summer months, leaving them both undertaught and underfed.

Last week’s State Board of Education vote will increase momentum toward addressing this issue during the Iowa legislature’s 2014 session. House Republicans have generally been receptive to arguments from lobbyists for the tourism industry, but so far the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate has shown no interest in moving a bill to limit local control over early school start dates.

Final note: I still think that the Branstad administration’s disregard for local government authority is one of the most under-reported Iowa political stories of the last few years. I’m not talking only about school start dates, but also about the governor’s disregard for school districts’ need for sufficient information when planning their budgets, his property tax cut proposals that would have decimated some city and county budgets, and his refusal to allow cities to use project labor agreements in local construction projects.

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