For students in Georgia’s public schools, summer break is typically short. Depending on the district, the school year generally ends in late May and starts up again in early August. In addition to being a bummer for students, state officials say a short summer hamstrings Georgia’s travel industry. That sector has an annual economic impact of almost $61 billion to the state.
This year, lawmakers passed a resolution that could lead the way for the state to step in and change school calendars. A Senate study committee, chaired by Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, is tasked with making recommendations about the school calendar to the General Assembly.
At its first meeting this month, the committee encountered some hurdles. The first is local control of schools. Georgia is a ‘local control’ state, meaning the legislature, state department of education, and the governor’s office rarely mandate school policies. Most decisions are left up to local boards of education and school district officials.
“School systems and their boards of education have complete control over when they go back to school when they end school, and everything in between,” said Matt Cardoza, assistant director of policy at the Georgia Department of Education.
Cardoza said most school districts form calendar committees, made up of parents, teachers, administrators, and other community members, to develop drafts. The committees typically seek input on start and end dates and other breaks during the year before devising a few options. Typically, community members get to vote on which calendar they like best. After a review period, the school board casts the deciding vote.
That’s what happened recently when Atlanta Public Schools devised new calendars for the next three years, starting in the fall of 2019. The plan makes summer a little longer and does away with fall and winter breaks.
“What people said is that they wanted to see a more ‘balanced’ calendar,” said APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. “They still like that 180 days [the length of the current school year], even though we have the flexibility to change that.”
Carstarphen said teachers also wanted to make sure the new calendars included enough instructional planning days.
“We had over 10,000 votes, which is an all-time high for APS,” she said. “Typically, when the calendar is feeling right, you don’t hear complaints afterwards. And we haven’t heard any.”
Still, some state lawmakers weren’t sure that school districts should keep making decisions about their own calendars.
“I don’t know that local control is the answer in every educational issue,” said Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville. “So, I’m interested in listening to the testimony and let’s see if we’re where we want to be and if the state needs to look at something different.”
Within that testimony, another hurdle popped up: testing. High school students take end-of-course (EOC) tests when the semester ends. When schools started in late August or after Labor Day, Cardoza said, students had exams hanging over their heads during Christmas [winter] break.
“You were finishing a semester after Christmas,” he said. “Then you had a potentially two-week break before kids were finishing their final exams.”
Most districts moved up their start dates so they could finish fall semester before Christmas.
Is It Worth It?
Cardoza also pointed out some communities have unique reasons for wanting a particular calendar.
“In Richmond County, with the Masters [golf tournament] being when it is, they don’t want to have spring break any other time than that particular week,” Cardoza said.
Some metro Atlanta districts, like Cobb and DeKalb, voted a few years ago to shorten summer break by about two weeks so they could take more breaks during the year. Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, cautioned the committee that trying to change school calendars from the state level could become a quagmire.
“It’s been a volatile issue in Cobb,” Jackson said. “We have struggled with it. But we have come to where we are happy and satisfied, and that’s important to us. We have gone through all the data, all the research and we’ve settled on August 1.”
The legislation that formed the committee says many of the state’s tourism and hospitality companies “hire full and part-time summer workers from Georgia high schools and colleges and provide them with valuable employment experience.”
However, Diane Jacobi with the Georgia Parent Teacher Association said school start and end dates don’t necessarily impact students’ summer work opportunities.
“A summer job position doesn’t necessarily start on June 1,” Jacobi said. “It doesn’t matter when school starts and ends to whether or not a student can get a job over their summer vacation.”
Jacobi also argued that calendars aren’t the biggest problems facing Georgia schools.
“If we’re talking about whether families can take vacations or not, this is a problem of privilege,” she said. “We are talking about a very select group of families when we’re talking about vacations. I would rather talk about: what resources do our students have in our schools? What are their class sizes? What qualifications do their teachers have? Do we have enough teachers coming into the pipeline?”
It’s unclear whether the Senate committee would recommend the state require all districts to start on the same day. That’s the case for neighboring states like North and South Carolina and Florida. The committee will meet four more times before Dec. 1. At that time, it’s expected to make recommendations to the Legislature. However, the committee can request an extension to December 31 if needed.
A note of disclosure: WABE is licensed to the Atlanta Board of Education.
Note: This story has been updated to correct Diane Jacobi’s name and title.