Singing a September School-Start Song

Thursday will be the first day of the new school year for the vast majority of public school students in Wisconsin. Why? Because that’s the law. No, not that school start on a Thursday, but that it not start earlier than September 1. And why is that? Because tourism industry leaders lobbied so hard for it.

In fact, when the law went through the legislature in the late 1990s, it was handled in the tourism committees of the Assembly and Senate, and not in the education committees, even though the subject was school calendars. I’ve always thought that said something about priorities in Wisconsin.

School opening dates in many districts had moved up over the years into late August. This was a problem, in the eyes of those in the tourism business. They said they wanted kids and parents to have the maximum opportunity to take vacations that build healthy family bonds and life-long memories. (As the song from Man of La Mancha put it, I’m only thinking of him.)  Let’s assume they also wanted to maximize their summer season and hold on to their high school student employees longer.

So, since 2000, state law 118.045 has specified “no public school may commence the school term until September 1.”   Athletic contests are exempted, as are in-service days for staff (which is why most teachers went back to work Tuesday or so).  Schools on so-called year-round calendars (which mean they take  shorter summer breaks but have the same total of school days) are exempt. And other schools that convince the state Department of Public Instruction there are “extraordinary reasons” may be granted exceptions. In Milwaukee, that includes several schools that have International Baccalaureate programs that call for starting in August. Private schools and higher-education institutions are not included in the law.

Many people were under the impression that the law called for starting after Labor Day, and in many years that is the way things work out. But this year is one that shows the difference between calling for a post-Labor Day start and a post-August start. Getting in the two days of school before Labor Day helps protect such things as a full Christmas vacation and an end to the school year early in June while still allowing districts to meet the state’s minimum requirement for school days (generally, 180 each year). Next year, Labor Day is Sept. 3. It will be back to a post-Labor Day start for the next several years.

Does the date school starts have any effect on education? Probably not. The total number of days remains the same and there is no change in the total length of summer vacation (many experts think such a long break from school has negative educational effect on many kids). But some would say there is one downside: Because Wisconsin gives its standardized tests early in the school year (generally, in November), there is a short window between when school starts and when the main annual measure of a school’s performance is administered. Some educators think this is one reason scores aren’t better.

More broadly, the September start shapes the daily life of tens of thousands of families in the state each year in both major and minor ways. For example, it creates more chances in August to gain life-enriching memories of water parks in the Dells.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Peter O'Meara

    The start-school-after-Labor Day rule is in effect in Minnesota. Minn. Stat. § 120A.40 (2010). I have heard (though it may be rumor) that the law was passed to accomodate the Minnesota State Fair ( I suppose there it would be life-enriching memories of butter sculpture and pictures made of seeds.

  2. Tom Kamenick

    Interesting, Peter, I was in Minneapolis over a long weekend and all the Monday morning news broadcasts (two days ago, August 29th) were that the Minneapolis public schools were starting school. I wonder why?

  3. Ellen Henak

    Actually, Mr. Borsuk, the song you are thinking of (“I’m Only Thinking of Him”) is from “Man of La Mancha” and not from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

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