OUR OPINION: School start should be educational decision

School starts this week in Tupelo, Lee County and across the region, and as a series of stories in Sunday’s Daily Journal reported, it could be the last time Mississippi students return this early.

It’s never a good idea to base educational policy on anything other than sound educational reasoning. That’s doubly true when the policy is a mandate from the state to local school districts that have no say-so in the matter.

When the 2012 Mississippi Legislature passed a law prohibiting local districts from starting the school year earlier than the third Monday in August, beginning in 2014, it had nothing to do with what was best for students. Nor was there any pretense about improving academic performance.

It was all about responding to pressure from state tourism interests, particularly on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, who see a summer break extending later into August as a boost for their vacation business.

Everyone wants Mississippi’s tourism industry to do well. It’s a major piece of the state’s economy, increasingly so in Northeast Mississippi. But the start of school shouldn’t be dictated by one industry’s economic interests.

No doubt many legislators believed this law would please parents. But if it goes into effect, it’s likely not to be long before lawmakers hear cries of protest from parents, teachers and others.

While early August starts of the school year are a relatively recent occurrence, and many parents and grandparents nostalgically remember school years that didn’t begin until after Labor Day, the new mandate could mean new schedules that won’t be universally popular. Either Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays will be cut significantly to get exams in before the Christmas break, or students will not be done with first semester work until after the holidays, not something most families want to worry about during such times.

But aside from these considerations, which are secondary, the law sends precisely the wrong message. Schools are being expected to accomplish much more, to have students spending more time “on task,” and breaking the school year away from the old agricultural model on which it is based is where we ought to be headed. This law enshrines other factors as paramount over local school boards’ and superintendents’ judgments on what is most effective and efficient for learning.

The 2014 Legislature should repeal this law before it takes effect and resist future educational decisions based on something other than educational considerations.