DES MOINES — A new rule being proposed by Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration would force school districts to document academic and financial hardships to get what are now routine waivers on school start dates.

The new rule will face its first test when it’s put before the Iowa State Board of Education this week for a vote.

Department of Education officials say the rule is a compromise aimed at getting back to the intent of state statute and gives neither education groups nor tourism industry advocates everything they want.

But whether it settles a decades-old argument about when school should start — or if the rule will even take effect — remains to be seen.

“What this (proposed rule) does is put us more in compliance with state law,” said Mike Cormack, a former state representative and a policy liaison with the Department of Education. “What we have here is good people looking at the same issue from different sides, and we came down right in middle.”

An old argument

State statute requires school to start no earlier than a day — typically the Monday — during the calendar week that includes Sept. 1.

But districts are allowed to ask for waivers, which are routinely granted. In the 2012-2013 school year, for example, only seven of the state’s more than 300 school districts didn’t receive a waiver. That’s been a sore point with Iowa’s tourism industry, which says earlier school start times cut into family vacation time and summer employment for high school students.

Education groups argue that school start dates should be a local decision made by people who know their communities best.

“Any time anyone brings up the school calendar, it becomes a very big debate,” said Kathy Christie, a researcher and vice president at the Education Commission of the States. “When to start school really depends on a lot of factors, so the research out there on how it affects student achievement is not that good. Sometimes, it comes down to whether the building has air-conditioning or not.”

Under the proposed rule, schools still can request waivers, but there are two levels of review.

For waivers that fall within seven days before the statutory requirement, a school board has to hold a public hearing on the start date, which, in most cases, would be a regularly school board meeting. Once the public hearing is held, the Department of Education director or a designee will have an “expedited review” of the waiver request.

School districts that want to go beyond the seven days, however, must prove that a later start date would have a “significant negative impact” on the students and district. The rule requires proof of those impacts through test score data, budget information and staffing considerations.

“It’s so frustrating,” said Mary Gannon, attorney for the Iowa Association of School Boards. “We spent the last two years working on reforms to K-12 education and gave the governor support on key components of that. Then they come out with this, which has nothing to do with student achievement.”

Cormack said that if the rule were in effect today, 70 percent of the school districts in the state would qualify for the first-tier waivers and 98.5 percent are within three days of that cutoff.


The rule, however, wouldn’t be in effect until the 2014-15 school year and then only if it passes through two hearings at the state Board of Education and two reviews by a state administrative rules panel plus at least one additional public hearing. The first state Board of Education hearing is Thursday and a public hearing is set for Sept. 10. The administrative rules committee date hasn’t been set yet.

If everything goes off without a hitch, the rule would become statute by Nov. 20 at the earliest.

“I think it’s a great compromise, and I commend the governor’s office for trying to work with all the parties involved,” said Iowa State Fair Manager Gary Slater.

He thinks it gives school officials the flexibility they need while still starting the school year after the fair ends, in most cases. The Iowa State Fair runs from Aug. 8-18 this year.

“We have some excellent schools,” Slater said. “But children can have an educational experience in a variety of ways, and one of those is at the fair.”

Dan Smith, executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa, said his association “strongly believes this should be a local decision.”

He thinks the rule isn’t the compromise the Branstad administration makes it out be.

Eastern Iowa Tourism Executive Director Carrie Koelker, whose Dyersville-based association helps coordinate regional tourism efforts, said tightening the rules shouldn’t harm educational outcomes for students.

“I have four children, so education is a huge issue for me,” she said. “I think the schools we have can still get what they need to get done with a late August start. I really don’t see why not.”

(8) comments

I can't remember
I can't remember

In this article Mary Gannon says that the school start date "has nothing to do with student achievement". That seems to take academic achievement off the table as a justification for a mid summer start. For a good part of this history of this country, schools started on the day after labor day and in many ways academic achievement was better. I might add that at that time, not so many days and hours of instruction were lost due to early release, late start, in-service days and cancellations because it was cold out or a couple inches of snow had fallen. In the days of post Labor Day start, graduates knew how to properly use an adverb.


Yes, things are different now. But I don't remember everything as being rosey 50 years ago, either. I did not attend a "big" school system. In 8th grade there were about 65 students. A few moved out to other schools but a few moved in. My high school graduation class had only 32 students. What happened to the rest? There were plenty of jobs available that didn't require an exemplar education. Fewer of those types of jobs out there, now.

Now we are graduating a lot more. Test scores for the masses have been going up.

I don't have any data of effects on achievement between pre and post Sep.1 starts, but there is a body of research that suggests a "balanced" calendar - a few shorter breaks thoughout the year instead of a long summer break- has a positive effect.

I can't remember
I can't remember

A graduation class of 32 is not exactly representative of education for most students. You are accurate when you state that today's competition in the global marketplace does not have much room for the unskilled. That's why graduates who cannot express themselves very well cannot compete in the workforce. The US spends more money on education, as a % of GNP or per capita, than any other country, yet regularly comes in 30th or 40th in the world. Perhaps that is because our students cannot remember, and are not required to remember, what they were taught two weeks earlier.


Who cares about the fair! I have lived in Davenport for 46 years and I have NEVER been there!


Iowa is a local control state so he'll have a rough go getting anywhere with that mandate-regardless of which house has the majority. It's already on the books and you can see how well it's being "enforced."


Thanks for the detailed comment "ref". Good information.

Al Taggart
Al Taggart

How fast was he going when he came up with this idea?


I've posted this before, but it is still timely:

Probably not a lot of data about the difference between a Sep.1 start and an Aug.20 start; not enough of a time difference to interest a lot of researchers.  There is a body of evidence that suggest there is an advantage to a 'balanced' calendar.  So if Gov.B. Really is the education gov, we may be looking at having AN ENTIRE TERM during the coveted tourism season.   

In any case, the school calendar is not done on a whim.  By Iowa code a 'School Improvement Advisory Committee' must discuss district goals and other things that may affect a district's performance.  Usually calendar is one of those items.  Then the committee must present it to the board.  The board must hold a public forum, usually as an add-on to a meeting.  Then it must be approved by the board, then apply for a waiver.
  Almost all districts have decided it makes educational sense to start earlier.   I am not sure of the discussion of all districts, but I was a member of one district's SIAC for several years.  Our discussion and process went thusly:

First, the inclusion of a spring break had been entrenched so that was a given.  Then there were the mandatory holiday dates: X-mas, Thanksgiving, Good Friday (and the parents' request for the following Monday), specific federal holidays, and the last few years-2 state supported professional development days (we dovetailed one of these into the Monday after Easter and one on Presidents' Day)  Then 180 school days.  The rest was just math.  Any change in the start date would necessitate a change in the end date.

The discussion in favor of the September 1 start date centered mostly on one topic, the state fair.  The idea of hot days in August was researched.  If we started after September 1, then we would be finished at the end of the first full week in June, absent any snow days.  So we looked at the historical difference in temp from late Aug and early June.  On average it was two degrees warmer in August.  We felt that was not a deal breaker.  There was some discussion about more time for families to plan a summer vacation, but after doing the math, that didn't hold true; there were the same number of days for summer vacation just transposed.

The discussion in favor of an August 20 start included:
1) This allowed us to finish the first semester before the Christmas break.  When the semester ended the 2nd week after xmas with the later star, high school staff and to some extent, the middle schools were spending up to a full week after xmas reviewing before giving the semester exams.  Staff felt this was necessary and fair after a 10-14 day xmas break.    With an August 20, or earlier start, they would be  starting a new, fresh semester upon their return.  This was like gaining an extra week of instruction.  One member argued that giving the finals after xmas break would allow students more time to study and complete projects, this did not hold up.  Historically students did not spend time on schoolwork during break.  In fact, an unforseen benefit of the earlier start was that staff had the time to complete grading of material before the break.  This allowed the use of an unheard of "incomplete" for students that had shirked their responsibilities.  It allowed the teacher to target specific students to remediate their work before the start of the next semester.
      Ending the semester by xmas also allowed those students taking dual credit classes to better dovetail into the community colleges' schedule.
      Some emperical data; the hs students were surveyed afterwards and overwhelmingly preferred having the semester end before xmas.

2)  Elementary and middle school teachers noted a decrease in time on task and homework completion after the start of Little League, city softball, Y soccer, and club select teams schedules.  This was usually in April.  Anecdotal data from teachers suggest any week before xmas was worth two weeks in May, and June days were  probably worse.

3)  A significant event during the school year is the Iowa Assessments.  These results can dramatically affect what programs a district can offer, who is eligible for these programs, what the staff can do during professional development, the perceived quality of the area's educational system, how much the district can spend on transportation... The list goes on.  An August 20 start allows two full weeks more instruction before the test, about 7% more class time.  Now, in theory the student should catch up from what they learn after the test and apply it THE FOLLOWING YEAR, but summer slide, and see number 2 above.

4)  The FFA, 4H students were accommodated via curriculum that incorporated the State Fair.  So, in some cases the district helped foot the bill for students going to the fair.

In summary, there were NO good educational reasons for starting after Sep.1.  There were several educational reasons to start earlier.
Now, whether you feel the reasons were good enough to start earlier is debatable.  But, the reasons were real, and SOME reason is better than no reason.

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