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Bill would allow school districts to start before Labor Day

House Photography file photo

A pair of bills geared toward earlier school start dates came before the House Education Policy Committee Wednesday, reigniting a decade’s long debate.

The discussion of pre- versus post-Labor Day start dates has been around for years, from the State Capitol down to the district level — often pitting the tourism and hospitality industry against school boards and administrators.

Sponsored by Rep. Cheryl Youakim (DFL-Hopkins), the committee chair, HF314 would fully repeal a statute originally enacted in 1985 requiring a post-Labor Day start date, with a few exceptions. This would free up districts start the school year earlier.

Administrators argue starting earlier would give teachers and students more time to prepare for standardized tests, and that students are far more perceptive and eager to learn in August than they are in June.

“Kids are ready to come back to school. School’s a vibrant place … they’re just ready to be back,” said Ryan Laager, superintendent of Belle Plaine Public Schools. “… When testing is over in the end of April, beginning of May, those students are ready to be done.”

Youakim and others stressed that the proposal is permissive, so it would allow districts the option to start earlier, not mandate it. The final decision would be made by school boards with input from parents and school community members.

“I am, though, a big local control person and I believe that those folks will listen to those in their community and what they need,” Youakim said.

Opponents of the bill included representatives from the tourism and hospitality industries, as well as state and county fair organizations that say advancing the start of the school year into August would have profound economic impacts on those industries.

Representing the Community of Minnesota Resorts, Joel Carlson said that the industry’s bottom line depends on late-season travel. 

“Resorters report when schools start before Labor Day, 40 percent of their August bookings go away,” he said. “That is stark economic reality in a business that has 10 weeks to be a viable business.”

Also aiming to impact start dates, HF531, sponsored by Rep. Shelly Christensen (DFL-Stillwater), would provide a two-year exemption, allowing districts to commence as early as Aug. 31 in 2020 and Aug. 30 in 2021. There have been similar legislative exemptions in the past to adjust for years when Labor Day is later in September.

Both bills were held over for possible omnibus bill inclusion. The companion to HF314 is SF918, sponsored by Sen. Carla Nelson (R-Rochester). The companion to HF531 is SF412 sponsored by Rep. Susan Kent (DFL-Woodbury). Both await action by the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee.

Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City) opposed Youakim’s bill saying there isn’t enough evidence to show earlier starts improved student outcomes enough to outweigh the burden it places on tourism and hospitality. However, he did support Christensen’s more restrictive bill.

Committee members provided a mix of feedback with Rep. Dave Baker (R-Wilmar), who runs a business that relies on tourism, emphasizing how critical those last few weeks of summer are on the business’ financial viability. On the other hand, Rep. Kaohly Her (DFL-St. Paul) said many families in her district are not financially positioned to take vacations and could benefit from the earlier start.

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