September 30, 2023

NC legislative committee backs school calendar flexibility

Tables and chairs are lined up, spaced out and facing in the same direction in the lunchroom of Athens Drive Magnet High School on Wednesday, February 10, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C.

Tables and chairs are lined up, spaced out and facing in the same direction in the lunchroom of Athens Drive Magnet High School on Wednesday, February 10, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C.

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A legislative committee wants to give more school calendar flexibility instead of recommending new restrictions that would force North Carolina public schools to start after Labor Day.

Last month, state Rep. John Torbett had talked about recommending a Labor Day to Memorial Day school calendar as part of the report from his House Committee on An Education System for North Carolina’s Future. Instead, the committee voted Monday on a report that includes recommending changing the school calendar law to give greater calendar flexibility to school boards.

“This provides a continued look and no one start date or end date,” said Torbett, a Gaston County Republican and senior chairman of the committee. “There is a great conversation around flexibility for each and every (local education agency), but then again you give the opportunity for 115 different calendars.”

But Torbett said he still wants to look at a Labor Day to Memorial Day schedule as potentially part of a future recommended statewide school calendar.

Other report recommendations include giving more authority to the state superintendent, increasing pay for teachers and reducing the focus on high-stakes testing.

The report passed the committee on a voice vote and will be forwarded to the General Assembly ahead of the legislative session that begins in January. Torbett said he’ll ask that the committee continue so that it can keep working on the findings in the report.

The committee has been meeting all year as part of an effort to come up with recommendations for changing how to run the system that educates 1.5 million public school students.

School calendar law

One of the most contentious issues the committee is weighing in on is the state law that requires most schools to start in late August and end by mid-June.

The school calendar law was passed by the General Assembly in 2004 at the request of the tourism industry and some parents. These groups were concerned about how the school year was starting earlier in August, cutting into summer vacation time.

School districts have been trying since the law was passed to get more flexibility, saying it limits their ability to schedule final exams before winter break.

The state House has passed multiple bills over the years to provide calendar flexibility. But the legislation has died in the Senate.

“The Committee finds that the current requirement that schools begin no earlier than the Monday closest to August 26 and adjourn no later than the Friday closest to June 11 creates a school calendar that is not best suited to the needs of students and educators,” according to the report. “To better meet those needs, the Committee finds that local boards of education should be given greater calendar flexibility.”

Some school districts have decided to ignore the calendar law. The Union County school board could vote Tuesday to become the largest school district in the state not to follow the calendar law, the Charlotte Observer reported.

“Calendar flexibility has long been talked about and is sorely overdue for a number of reasons,” said Rep. David Willis, a Republican and former Union County school board member.

Superintendent’s authority

Most of the committee’s findings talk about continuing to study issues. An exception is the recommendation that the General Assembly put on the ballot “as soon as practicable” a constitutional amendment asking voters to give the state superintendent more authority over education.

“The Committee finds that the current division of authority between the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction creates a power struggle that causes more strife than support for North Carolina’s education system,” according to the report. “The Committee has received public comment stating that the greater authority should be placed with the official directly elected by the people of the State, instead of an appointed body.”

The state board currently has a majority made up of appointees of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Catherine Truitt, a Republican, has been superintendent since winning the 2020 election.

“Asking the public to determine the division of authority between the State Board and the Superintendent raises a host of issues, and I just think it needs to be looked at very, very carefully,” said Rep. Rachel Hunt, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “There would have to be a huge amount of public instruction on what this constitutional amendment is, what it does, how it would affect your children.”

Torbett replied that he wasn’t trying to add or take away from the superintendent or the state board but to avoid a repeat of past litigation between the two entities.

Raising teacher pay

The report had four other findings and recommendations touching on areas such as instructional offerings, teacher pay, testing and school discipline.

“The Committee strongly recommends that the General Assembly continue to study the most essential content necessary for students to become successful citizens and be career and college ready.”

”The Committee recommends that the General Assembly continue to review the current salary schedules for educators and look for opportunities to adjust job duties to increase the high-quality educator workforce in the State.”

”The Committee recommends that the General Assembly continue to study ways to create safe learning environments for all students.”

”The Committee recommends that the General Assembly continue to study the student assessment system and make the adjustments necessary to create the most useful system.”

This story was originally published December 12, 2022 3:24 PM.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.