Students were looking forward to 12 weeks of relaxation — maybe some pool time, a family trip or even summer coursework — when they walked out of school last month.
A new law could extend summer break for a few more days, but not everyone is celebrating.
Missouri lawmakers passed legislation that could push back the first day of classes for public schools in the state. The measure, which Gov. Mike Parson hasn’t yet signed into law, is aimed at boosting Missouri’s tourism industry with extra time for one final family vacation.
The bill passed in the final days of the General Assembly, despite opposition from superintendents and school boards.
“It does take away from local decision making,” said Dr. Doug Van Zyl, superintendent of the St. Joseph School District. “I think it sends an inaccurate message in saying that maybe tourism trumps academics, trumps school. I don’t think that’s the message they really want to send.”
The Missouri Division of Tourism estimates the economic impact of travel and lodging at $17 billion in the state. A specific dollar amount may elude state education officials, but they can point to an economic boost from a trained, educated work force.
But the needs of tourism and the needs of teaching didn’t always align. Most school districts are allowed to choose their own start date, although a school board sometimes is required to hold a hearing.
That would change under House Bill 604, which eliminates the hearing requirement and prevents schools from starting any earlier than 14 days before the first Monday of September, beginning with the 2020-21 school year.
The tourism industry has wanted to establish a unified school start date in Missouri for more than three decades. Kathy Reno, communications and public relations coordinator for St. Joseph Museums, thinks a longer summer vacation has more benefit to large tourism centers in Branson.
That’s because places like Silver Dollar City, or Six Flags in St. Louis, sometimes scale back late in the summer when their large school-aged work force returns to class.
“I don’t think it will impact us much,” Reno said. “For any of the large tourist attractions, it would be helpful to them when they have guests coming. A lot of tourists don’t have children in school. They are still traveling in August.”
Reno said she sees both sides of the debate, with the travel industry wanting an extra weekend and schools wanting autonomy.
For the St. Joseph School District, the bill would have moved this fall’s starting date from Aug. 15 to Aug. 19. Four days doesn’t seem like much, but it could make a difference.
”It does impact schools from the fact that there could be times going forward where we may not be able to get our first semester in before Christmas break,” Van Zyl said. “A lot of times we want to do that so that there’s not a week, a week and a half, two weeks off before kids come back and have to finish up their end-of-course exams.”
The bill was part of an omnibus education measure. Other provisions included rules for charter schools, protections for religious studies, standards for turning around struggling schools and limits on how many days schools have to make up for inclement weather.