By Michael Melkonian
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Virginia schools should not be allowed to start classes before Labor Day, a coalition of state legislators and tourism officials said Wednesday. They voiced support for the current law requiring schools to begin after Labor Day, the traditional end of the tourism season, unless they get permission from the state.
A half-dozen bills before the General Assembly seek to eliminate the so-called “King’s Dominion law” and give school boards the authority to begin classes before Labor Day. The bills’ proponents say a pre-Labor Day start of the school calendar would boost students’ academic performance.
But officials from tourist destinations like Virginia Beach and Williamsburg disputed the alleged benefits of starting school before Labor Day and said it would be a bad idea.
“The value to education is non-existent, but the harm to tourism that helps fund it can be significant,” Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, said at a press conference.
A study done for the association by James McMillan, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, showed “approximately equal academic performance” between Virginia school districts that started after Labor Day and those that started before. McMillan’s study analyzed data such as graduation rates, attendance and SOL performance.
“This report proves there is no empirical evidence showing that there is any benefit to starting before (Labor Day),” said Del. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, who called his district “the tourism mecca.”
He was among six legislators who spoke at the press conference to support the existing law. Another was Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria.
“I will change my position only when there is data that shows that there is a significant difference in student outcome, and that clearly does not exist,” Barker said.
Although the law states public schools must start after Labor Day, districts can receive a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education to start early – usually by showing a likelihood that snow would disrupt the school calendar. About half of Virginia’s school divisions apply for the waiver, most citing the previous year’s weather as the reason.
Virginia theme parks like King’s Dominion and Busch Gardens have advocated keeping schools from starting before Labor Day. That holiday weekend can be a last chance for families to visit the parks for the summer and a big cash-in for the companies. The theme parks also rely on teenage workers who would have to quit before the season ends if schools started early.
Carl Lum, president of Busch Gardens Williamsburg, was present at the press conference to show his support for the existing law.
The tourism industry is Virginia’s fifth largest private employer and accounted for over $21 billion in revenue and almost $3 billion in state and local taxes in 2013, according to the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association.
Six bills pending before legislative committees in the House and Senate would make “local school boards responsible for setting the school calendar and determining the opening date of the school year.” The proposals would specifically eliminate the requirement that classes start after Labor Day.
The bills are:
- HB 1550, by Del. Tag Greason, R-Potomac Falls
- HB 1838, by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield
- HB 1941, by Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham
- SB 1078, Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Winchester
- SB 1131, Sen. Tom Garrett, R-Lynchburg
- SB 1249, by Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Roanoke