Iowa Legislature Reaches Compromise On K-12 Calendars

Apr 1, 2015

The state legislature yesterday sent a bill to Gov. Terry Branstad setting August 23 as the earliest date students can go back to class. The bill attempts to balance the interests of Iowa K-12 education and the state's tourism industry. Not everyone is pleased.

Lisa Riggs is president of the Travel Federation of Iowa and general manager of the Danish Windmill in Elk Horn. The windmill was shipped from Denmark to the west-central Iowa town in 1975.

Today the wooden structure is quite an attraction. Last year it lured 62,000 visitors, nearly 100 times Elk Horn’s population.  

“We’ve had from the Ukraine, from Russian, you know of course all the Scandinavian countries,” Riggs says. “Last year we had over 1,200 people from the country of Denmark to come see what the heck the Danish Americans are doing here in Elk Horn, Iowa.”

Riggs says when school starts early and teens return to the classroom, tourist attractions are left with skeleton crews to handle visitors. Also August start dates cut back on time for family vacations.

After what Riggs describes as years of aggravation, Iowa's tourism industry successfully lobbied the governor last year to end the practice of issuing early-start waivers for school districts that want to begin classes before the week of September 1.

“And we’re just asking for 14 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day that we can call a good old-fashion Iowa summer,” Riggs says.

Regarding the August 23 start date, Riggs says ending summer vacation before Labor Day still hurts tourism. But she is glad to see the issue resolved.

One of the more contentious aspects of the compromise deals with year-round school.

While elementary and middle schools are allowed to schedule continuous calendars, high schools are not. Democrats initially held out hope for, but ultimately were unable to secure a year-round option for older students. 

Barb Ramos, chair of the education department at Simpson College in Indianola, studies the educational benefits of continuous school calendars. She says the term “year-round” is misleading.

“We get this picture in our head of a lot of little kids strapped to their desks...year round is just continuous learning where you spread out the breaks across the year,” Ramos says. “So summer break is shorter, and then there’s frequent short breaks throughout the year. But the students still attend school for 180 days.”

Ramos says research shows there are reasons to consider a year-round calendar, especially when it comes to summer learning loss. Basically summer break is too long, kids forget a good chunk of what they learn during the year, and as a result teachers must review old material instead of instructing on new information.

Only a handful of Iowa schools, such as Capitol View Elementary in Des Moines or Irving Elementary in Indianola, are on a year-round calendar. Since none of these schools are high schools, some argue this aspect of the K-12 calendar debate is moot.

But districts and parents alike say the issue isn’t whether or not high schools could theoretically switch to a year-round calendar, but rather that scheduling decisions are being made at the state level.

Liz Brennan’s son Joe attends Valley High School in West Des Moines. Parents in her district voted to start the 2015-16 school year on August 12. Yesterday’s action in the legislature overrides this decision.

“One of the most frustrating parts of this is it’s totally beyond our control,” Brennan says. “The calendar was set and we’ve been making plans for that date. And now someone in Des Moines is changing all that for us.”

As for Joe, he too would like to return to school a bit earlier since currently his first semester finals take place after winter break.

“Finals before break is a better way to do it," Joe Brennan says. "So starting the year mid August or early August is probably the best."

Educators also say a less compact school calendar allows professional training to be spread throughout the year, which districts find more effective.  

Iowa Republicans and Democrats have taken an interesting role reversal over the issue of local control in this debate. By eliminating the waiver process Branstad, a Republican, took away autonomy from school districts. And it is the Democrats who are accusing the state government of wielding excessive power. 

Despite the sour taste in many Iowans mouths over the conclusion of this debate, Branstad is expected to sign the legislation into law.

Summer, however, is around the corner. Soon everyone can take a break from politics and head over to the pool, or an amusement park, or their local historic windmill.