A rebellion against North Carolina’s school calendar law has gotten the attention of state lawmakers. About a dozen districts have started earlier than the law allows. One key legislator says the state can’t keep looking the other way, but it’s unclear whether officials will ease up or crack down.
The first three weeks of August are supposed to be protected for summer vacation – at least according to North Carolina’s school calendar law and the tourism industry, which pushed to get that law passed 15 years ago.
But school is already under way in about a dozen North Carolina school districts, including a handful near Charlotte.
"The state has by and large turned its head," Horn said Wednesday, "but now, with the growing number that are participating or utilizing this quirk in the law, we’re going to have to address it."
The loophole involves year-round schools, which are exempt from the mandate to open no earlier than late August. The law doesn’t define year-round, so officials from several districts that started early now claim their optional summer school programs qualify.
So far, state education officials haven’t taken action because they waited to see whether the early-start calendars generated complaints, says Alexis Schauss, chief business officer for North Carolina public schools.
"We’ve received one parent complaint from a school district," Schauss said. "That was back in the fall, and in the spring we had notified that school district that they were not in compliance with that start date."
Schauss says that district was Iredell-Statesville Schools, which went ahead with an August 8 opening.
The calendar law doesn’t spell out a penalty for violators. But the state provides most of the operating budget for public schools, and Horn says the state could use that money as leverage. He suspects that’s why large districts with high profiles haven’t defied the law, even though they’ve repeatedly asked for permission to set their own calendars.
"It means that the larger districts like CMS (and) Union are actually penalized because they don’t have that option," Horn said. "They can’t afford to take the chance that they would lose state funding."
Leaders of many districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, say there are academic advantages to an earlier start, such as letting high school students take first-semester finals before winter break. But CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston said he has no plans to shift the calendar unless the law changes.
"We’re going to continue on the path that we have been on, and that’s making sure that we’re in full compliance with state law around the calendar process," he said.
Winston’s counterpart in Union County Schools, Andrew Houlihan, tweeted about the calendar question this week, asking “Why not give calendar flex to all NC schools?”
Horn says he’s proposed legislation that would do just that, and the House has passed it. But a host of calendar flexibility bills have met their demise in the Senate, Horn says.
In other words, he says, the fate of the early-start districts – and the school calendar bill -- lies in the hands of the senate’s president pro tem, Phil Berger.
"I have attempted to meet with Senator Berger and some of his colleagues," Horn said, "but by and large that’s not borne any fruit as of yet."
Berger declined to comment. But his staff forwarded a statement from Sen. Deanna Ballard of Watauga County, co-chair of the Senate’s education committee. That statement notes that based on "rumors that some districts were going to attempt to skirt the law and open early," the legislature passed a Senate bill requiring all districts to report their start dates to the Department of Public Instruction, along with an explanation if they’re out of step with the requirements.
Schauss says her team is working on that list. Her best estimate is 12 to 14 districts that have opened early without authorization. In the Charlotte area they include Iredell-Statesville, Lincoln County, Anson County, Mooresville and Kannapolis.
"The first report is due on September 1st," Ballard's statement says, "so we should have a better understanding of the issue at that point which will allow us to determine the best path forward. We expect state and local officials to follow the law and state agencies, in this case DPI, to enforce it.”