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Granholm OKs later start to K-12 school year

Published September 29, 2005

LANSING (AP) - Many school districts will start classes after Labor Day next fall after Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed a bill yesterday requiring the later start.

"There is no doubt in this state that tourism is an important part of our economy," the governor told reporters. "I made sure that this would not harm education. - You can have both a robust economy and a robust education system."

The new rule applies to all public and charter schools and intermediate school districts, although those with teacher contracts and other employee contracts still in effect next fall can put off complying with the law until the contracts expire.

Some districts already have pushed the start of school past Labor Day. At least 11 of the state's 50 largest school districts planned to begin classes after Labor Day this school year, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis.

Justin King, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, expects that more than half of the state's districts will have teacher contracts still in effect next fall, so many districts may not make the change until 2007.

He was disappointed that lawmakers passed and Granholm signed a bill he said was based on business interests and not on education.

"I didn't see any discussion at all about school achievement," King said. "I don't think it's sound educationally, and I think she took the easy way out."

Schools still will be required to offer 1,098 hours of instruction. They used to be required to spread those hours over at least 180 days of school, but now are held only to the hours requirement.

Granholm said she would rather see districts cut vacation days or extend the school year further into June to stick as close to the 180 days as possible, rather than making the school day longer and shortening the school year.

But she said the law allows districts the flexibility to do what they want.

Tourism officials and business leaders from the northern and western parts of the state had urged the governor to sign the bill. They say it will encourage families to take vacations in Michigan later in the summer, bringing needed business to a tourism industry hurt by the 2001 terrorist attacks and higher gas prices.

Donald Holocek, director of the Michigan Travel, Tourism and Recreation Resource Center at Michigan State University, estimated the later start date could increase statewide economic activity by $132 million and raise state tax revenues by at least $10 million a year.

Businesses and the state could benefit even more once the post-Labor Day start takes hold and more people vacation in late August, he said. He noted that businesses adding two weeks to the peak season for summer tourism could increase their sales by 10 percent.

Education groups and some lawmakers, however, argued that the decision on when to start should be left to school districts. They said students start practicing for fall sports and marching band in early August, keeping them at home regardless of when classes begin.

"Setting the calendar is the primary responsibility a board of education has," King said. "You take that away and you take away a big part of decision-making."

School officials also worried that the later start date would give them less time to prepare students for the Michigan Education Assessment Program tests each fall. But the state Department of Education said it will take the new law into account when scheduling the tests.

"The testing still would be conducted in the fall, but the three-week testing window could be moved and still allow student results to be returned to the teachers by the end of the calendar year," the department said in a statement.

Recent polls show a majority of voters support starting the school year after Labor Day. Fifty-seven percent surveyed in a Sept. 16-21 poll conducted by Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group said school districts should be required to start after Labor Day, while 41 percent said local school districts should decide and 2 percent were undecided.

An Aug. 15-18 poll conducted by Lansing-based EPIC/MRA showed 63 percent supported the post-Labor Day opening, with 67 percent of parents with school-age children supporting the change.

"If school boards were truly responsive to parents, this bill wouldn't have been necessary," said Rich Studley of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which along with the Michigan Restaurant Association and other business and tourism groups supported the change.