Los Angeles Ends Experiment Starting School Before Labor Day

by | September 21, 2016

By Howard Blume

The nation's second-largest school system on Tuesday moved away from its brief experiment with an earlier school start, edging back closer to the traditional day-after-Labor Day schedule.

Starting next year, school will start a week later than it did this year. In 2018, classes will begin later still, one week before Labor Day.

The decision by the Los Angeles Board of Education represents one more tweak to a formula that parents and officials debate endlessly. Proponents of an early start are certain that it is propelling rising graduation rates and other gains in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Opponents are just as convinced that the schedule is academically irrelevant and an inconvenience to most families. They also point to the added cost of air conditioning schools in the heat of August.

For years, L.A. Unified started after Labor Day. Then, five years ago, the early start was promoted as a helpful, relatively painless reform. The calendar has been tweaked since, with the first day landing this year on Aug. 16 -- which brought matters to Tuesday's Board of Education discussion.

"I think we're starting too early right now," said board member George McKenna, who was one of  three board members who proposed returning to a school year that begins after the first Monday in September.

Before the three could try for a four-vote majority at Tuesday's board meeting, Supt. Michelle King proposed a compromise -- which is what the board passed.

Students still receive the primary benefit of the early start: finishing the fall semester before the winter break, King said. That's why school won't begin after Labor Day.

There'd also be other changes: Students will get three days off for Thanksgiving instead of five, and winter break will shrink from three weeks to two. The adjusted school year also will end later in June

The issue arose because planning already has begun for next year -- and because the board members who favored a later start saw a chance to make a change.

Although parents who support a later start have turned in thousands of petition signatures, the school system has not determined what the majority wants.

Some observers cast the debate as something of a middle-class conflict. Many families favor the later start to coordinate with summer camp schedules across the country and to plan vacations. On the other side are families of many college-bound high school students, who want extra study days before the Advanced Placement tests.

The board's student member raised concerns about starting school later -- especially because AP testing occurs in early May, regardless of when school starts.

"Changing the calendar by three weeks could have a negative impact on so many students," said Karen Calderon, an Alexander Hamilton High School senior. "These three weeks have been incredibly beneficial to me.... In changing the start date I think we're limiting the future."

In the end, however, Calderon, whose vote is advisory, supported the compromise.

The final tally of the elected board was 5 to 2. Steve Zimmer and Ref Rodriguez sided with the three original supporters: McKenna, Scott Schmerelson and Richard Vladovic. Voting no were Monica Garcia and Monica Ratliff.

Garcia said the change would hurt students.

Next year, school likely will start Aug. 22. King will return to the board with the specific calendar dates to present for formal approval.

For some parents, of course, a practical advantage of an early start is to get their children out of sweltering homes and parks and into air conditioning.

The early start, however, has driven up air-conditioning costs, according to the district, with the reduced June electricity bill more than offset by the increase in August, a difference averaging about $1.4 million over the last three years, when Augusts have been hotter than usual.

Getting a handle on all the costs is a complicated matter that King asked the staff to take on.

An eight-page report asserted that, on balance, switching to a post-Labor Day start would cost L.A. Unified $134.3 million, a claim that evaporated on closer examination.

More than $12 million of that loss is based on the idea that student attendance will decline. The only support for this assertion was an extrapolation that compared attendance rates last year with an attendance estimate for a different calendar.

A loss of $122 million was based on the idea that starting school later means that employees, who are paid over the entire 12-month year, would be receiving more of their salary before earning it, said district controller Luis Buendia. But over the entire work year, the payments to employees would remain the same as before, he said in an interview.

The staff analysis also asserted that more pay days would fall on nonschool days, causing paychecks to be mailed at an increased annual cost of $10,000.

The effort to sleuth out such expenses suggests that senior officials were against the change.

There's little doubt about where district managers stood regarding the instructional impact. The report talked of fewer days of access to college counselors prior to college application deadlines and fewer opportunities for students to use the winter break to make up classes they failed in the fall.

"These are all really critical points central to the main purpose of education and ought to be prioritized over comfort level of elementary school parents who haven't lived through this experience yet," the staff report said.

(c)2016 the Los Angeles Times