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News

April 12, 2012

House OKs bill prohibiting early school start date

DES MOINES — The Iowa House approved a measure Tuesday that would prohibit local school districts from starting classes before the fourth Monday in August.

Supporters of the measure say it takes into account Iowa's farm-based economy by keeping summer open for activities such as farming and the state fair. But opponents say the state shouldn't meddle in matters best left to local school officials.

The measure, which cleared the House 54-44, now goes to the state Senate.

"We have an ag-based economy, our heritage is founded in agriculture," said Rep. Lance Horbach, R-Tama. "I think we are doing our children a service."

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said officials at the local level know most about setting their school calendars. She said school officials in her hometown coordinate their schedule with the University of Iowa's, which might not work for other districts.

"It is such an individual issue, based on your district," said Mascher, a retired teacher.

Under current law, local schools can't begin the academic year until after Sept. 1, but they can seek waivers to start earlier.

Starting dates for local schools — a hot issue through the years — has been debated often in the Legislature.

Tourism and economic development officials see August as a key month for travel that helps spark the state's economy and boost attendance at important tourist spots within the state.

Some local school officials see the issue differently, and some are eager to begin the school year in August because that's when athletic programs traditionally begin. In addition, they say an earlier start gives them a cushion as the school year unfolds. State law requires schools to offer 180 days of classroom instruction and bad weather in the winter often causes cancellations that can extend the school year into June.

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said school officials in his district have urged him to give them discretion.

"Locally they work and it's none of our business," Jacoby said.

The measure's future in the Senate is unclear. Lawmakers had expected to end this year's session next week, and they still must approve a new $6 billion state budget before adjourning.

Some lawmakers had pushed for broader coordination of the school year across various education levels. They argued that high schools, community colleges and four-year universities and colleges should coordinate their calendars because students have to move between those levels.

Rep. Peter Cownie, R-West Des Moines, said there's been little discussion and planning regarding that type of coordination. He said the debate over it should occur at another time. The House did not push forward on the issue.

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