New school calendar policy is Branstad's latest assault on local control

Governor Terry Branstad has repeatedly used his power to supersede local government decision-making, from 1990s policies to block counties from restricting large hog confinements to an executive order banning project labor agreements the very first day he was back in office in January 2011.

On Friday Iowans saw the latest example of Branstad’s disregard for local officials’ ability to decide what’s best.

Iowa Department of Education Director Brad Buck informed public school districts that the department will no longer issue automatic waivers to districts seeking to start the academic year before the week including September 1. (Click here to read the full text of Buck’s letter.) The new policy came straight from the governor, who told Buck the Department of Education should allow exceptions only if a school district could demonstrate a “significantly negative educational impact.”

For decades, most Iowa school districts have sought and received waivers to allow the academic year to begin before September 1. In fact, “For the 2014-2015 school year, all but two of 338 public districts in the state obtained a waiver, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards.” Why would hundreds of school board members and administrators set calendars with early start dates, with the Department of Education’s approval? Although many adults have fond memories of long summer breaks, research has repeatedly shown that students lose a lot of knowledge over the summer, forcing teachers to spend a lot of time re-teaching material kids should have mastered the previous academic year. The problem particularly affects children whose parents cannot afford summer camps and other enrichment activities.  

The new policy is primarily geared toward helping Iowa businesses as well as promoting attendance at the Iowa State Fair. Branstad has long supported the tourism industry’s lobbying efforts to force Iowa schools to start the year later. However, the state legislature declined to act on the matter, and last year the State Board of Education voted against a Department of Education proposed rule change that would have made it more difficult for school districts to receive a waiver.

Since Buck declared the new policy effective immediately, and it’s not clear how lenient his department will be in granting waivers, many school administrators are “scrambling” to revise 2015/2016 calendars already approved or near the final stages. Perhaps the Des Moines Public Schools will get a waiver for its plan to start most classes on August 26, less than a week before September 1. However, Sioux City schools are set to begin the year on August 20, and West Des Moines approved an August 12 start date for 2015/2016. School board members in Waukee, Iowa’s fastest-growing district, unanimously approved an August 13 start date, citing a teachers committee recommendation based on “what they believe meets the educational needs of our students.”

The governor’s official spin claims to recognize local power:

Branstad’s spokesman, Jimmy Centers, noted legislation passed earlier this year gives school districts and accredited nonpublic schools the option to choose between 180 days or 1,080 hours of instruction for the school year.

“So they still have the flexibility that they like to have locally, but also the students and the families have the benefits of a full summer,” he said.

If research supported the “benefits of a full summer” for students, we wouldn’t see 336 of 338 Iowa school districts starting classes before September 1. In any event, it’s remarkable to see the governor claiming to support “flexibility” while imposing a policy that overrides hundreds of local decisions.

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  • The legislature can fix this.

    They should eliminate the school start date from the code. They would have the support of 336 of 338 local school boards. Would House Republicans vote to change the law? Would Branstad veto elimination of the start date?

  • Wait until parents figure out what this does to sports schedules

    Branstad claimed to be listening to parents whose children wanted to show animals at the State Fair and take vacations — but what about the parents of kids who play football?  Those sport schedules have been built upon early start dates (including the playoffs).  

    And is it going to be a “significant negative educational impact” when the AP and honors classes and classes co-offered with community colleges won’t work because of the later start date?  It should — they have years of precedent, going back to when that language was added to the statute, and all the waivers granted since then. Seriously, to change that interpretation now just because the Governor said so is troubling. I see litigation coming.

    And I think this is not so much about what parents have been asking for, but about what the lobbyists have been pushing for. I would hope the media would push for the full story on contacts, records, etc., but their ranks are sadly dwindling and this probably doesn’t matter much on their to do list.  Never mind that we are long past the time when running the school on an agrarian calendar made sense (how many kids help with bringing in the crops?); why aren’t we looking, though, at innovative programs and calendars for a modern curriculum?  Why are we stuck with a 1983 statute that still weds us to prior centuries’ thinking about how to run our school year? (Yes, there’s some pilot program language in there, but haven’t we learned anything more from that in the last 30+ years?)

    I always find this topic frustrating, as you can tell. My kids spend almost the first 2 months of school reviewing last year’s material, which I think is a waste of time. I’ve talked to the teachers about it, and they, too, would prefer a different system – some variation of year-round school.  I’m sure the rural areas disagree.  Great.  Let them set their own calendars. That’s what local control was meant for. And with open enrollment, you can go to a district with a calendar you like.  Except under this Governor.

    • most of the rural school districts

      start the school year before September 1 too.

      This is definitely being pushed by lobbyists rather than educators. It’s rare for the State Board of Education to make such a strong statement against a policy the governor wants.

      • Oh, I know the lobbyists

        They don’t have school-age children, and don’t want to hear my very real and practical issues with their positions. It doesn’t matter to them.  It’s about money to their clients, no matter how they may spin it. That’s what makes me really angry about this issue. The question is not about what’s best for the kids’ education. And question for the Governor: how does this new policy fit with your goal of having the #1 schools in the nation? I would suggest you’ve not done such a great job of meeting your own goal, quite frankly.