Does Starting School After Labor Day Help or Hurt Students?

Extending summer break may be good for the economy, but there are unintended consequences.
by | September 14, 2016
Maryland Gov. Hogan reading to schoolchildren. (FlickrCC/Maryland GovPics)

Starting next year, schools in Maryland won't open their doors to students until after Labor Day, thanks to an executive order issued last month by Gov. Larry Hogan.

Kids may have cheered the later start date, which extends summer break in many jurisdictions by a week or two. And the state says that a longer summer will boost the economy, adding another week for residents to hit Maryland's beach destinations. One 2013 report from the state's Board of Revenue Estimates said that an extra week of summer would add $74 million in economic activity, including an additional $7.7 million in state and local tax revenue.

But many critics blasted Hogan's move.

The state Senate president declared Hogan’s order “legally questionable,” and several local superintendents said it overrides the authority of local school districts. State Treasurer Nancy Kopp called Hogan's actions an "abuse of executive power" and "a misuse of authority." The state attorney general's office is expected to decide on the legality of the move but so far has not released official word.

Maryland is hardly the only place that's thinking about pushing the first day of school until after the Labor Day holiday.

Ohio, Rhode Island and the city of Los Angeles all are eyeing legislation this year that would mandate a post-Labor Day start date -- something Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia already do. The Delaware state Senate this year passed a bill pushing back the school year, but the measure died in the House.

Critics say pushing back the first day of school will hurt student achievement: Kids already struggle with knowledge retention over summer break, and extending it by another week only exacerbates the issue, say opponents. According to the National Summer Learning Association, students can lose up to three months of math and reading skills over the summer. In Maryland, the state teachers union decried the governor's order, saying it would "worsen summer brain drain."

And for parents who must rely on day care or camps or other form of private child care, an extra week of summer can be a pricey proposition.

One less-talked-about issue is hunger. For children of low-income families who depend on school-provided breakfast and lunch, an extended summer break can mean one more week of food insecurity, of not knowing where they’ll get their next meal.

Currently, 22 million American schoolchildren rely on free or reduced-price lunch at school. Delaying the school year may put an already vulnerable population at an even higher risk of hunger and poor nutrition.

"There’s a pretty significant unintended consequence there," said Lucy Melcher, associate director for advocacy at No Kid Hungry, a national nonprofit focused on childhood hunger. For students who depend on school meals, she said, "Instead of having an extra week or two of summer, they are hungry."

States see the impact of that at food banks.

“We see a marked increase [at the food banks] in the summer when kids aren’t getting those free or reduced lunches," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. "Typically, families need to spend $300 more per month during the summer to feed kids when they aren’t getting school meals."

The federal government does have a summer meals program, but it falls short of meeting the needs of schoolchildren across the country, hunger advocates say. The current summer meals program only reaches about 15 percent of kids who eat a free or reduced-price lunch, said Melcher.

Congress could opt to add greater flexibility to the summer meals program in the Child Nutrition Act, which is up for reauthorization later this month. Advocates say changes to the legislation, such as allowing community groups to deliver summer meals rather than requiring children to consume them at designated locations, could help increase access.

Meanwhile, educators, state officials and other advocates across the country will continue to debate the "best" time to start a new school year and whether the influx of additional tourism revenue outweighs other concerns.