Florida Group Pushes for Uniform School Start Date

Published March 1, 2006

Following the lead of parent-activists in 11 other states, Sherri Sturner, a Miami mother, last year founded Save Our Summers, a nonprofit organization that is encouraging the Florida legislature to pass a bill requiring public schools to return from summer break no earlier than the week before Labor Day. A poll released in December revealed 75 percent of the people surveyed agree with that idea.

The bill (H.B. 177) passed the House Pre-K-12 Committee on a 10-1 vote January 10; at press time, it still needed to pass the Education Appropriations Committee and Education Council before the full House of Representatives could vote on it.

Sturner, who describes herself as “just a regular mom who got fed up with schools starting earlier and earlier every year,” began researching the issue on the Internet. When she found other states–Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin–had adopted a uniform start date, she started emailing her friends and asking them to tell their friends. By August, the Save Our Summers Web site had 8,000 supporters contacting their legislators to ask for a uniform school start date.

While schools in Florida do not have a uniform school end date, most complete classes in May. Sturner and her supporters believe a shorter summer and longer school year have several negative effects on the state, including that students do not have time to fully recuperate from the previous school year before beginning the next.

Summer’s Value

Sturner says the arguments for a uniform school start date are compelling. For example, 60 of Florida’s 67 counties started their 2005-06 school year during the first two weeks of August, the hottest month in Florida, leading to significant energy costs. An Oklahoma school district that moved its start date back a few weeks to miss the hottest part of the year saved $500,000 in cooling costs alone, according to a November 2002 Tulsa World news article posted on the Save Our Summers site.

August is also the peak of hurricane season, which interrupts school years that begin earlier. “Some school districts even schedule fall breaks now [to give students a rest]. We are just spreading the school year out,” Sturner said.

A second economic consideration is unique to Florida: The state thrives on tourism, particularly during the summer months. Many tourism businesses rely on high school students to fill the temporary need for more help. When these employees have to return to school in the middle of the summer, Florida businesses are understaffed for the remainder of the season, Sturner said.

Standardized Test Fairness

Early school start dates prevent teachers from taking full summer courses to pursue advanced degrees. Moreover, making the start date uniform across the board would ensure fairness on state tests, Sturner said.

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT)–the test administered every March that determines funding and school ratings–is affected by school start dates. The earlier a school starts classes, the better its odds of improving students’ scores, Sturner said, which provides a powerful incentive to start earlier each year. A uniform school start date would mirror those already in effect for sports teams, which cannot begin practice before a certain date to ensure no team or player has an unfair advantage.

Districts cite different reasons for earlier start dates. In Orange County, Lin Wright, senior manager of media relations, confirmed that the FCAT plays a role. “One reason the start date is earlier is FCAT preparation,” Wright said. “The earlier you start the school year, the earlier you can prepare children. [An earlier start date] also puts exams before winter break instead of after.”

But in Hillsborough County, spokesperson Linda Cobbe said, “We started moving it up in response to requests from a student group called the Student Forum that makes recommendations to the school board. The forum said they would like to have an equal number of days in each semester and have semester exams completed before the end of the semester.” She said the move to an earlier start date began with the 1998-1999 school year.

Widespread Support

To gauge whether the public would support a floor on the school start date and, if so, for what reasons, Save Our Summers contracted with the Kitchens Group, an Orlando-based opinion research firm, to find out where Floridians stand on the issue. The results were surprising, even to president Jim Kitchens.

“As a pollster, you tend to think you know what people’s opinions are,” Kitchens said. “I was surprised by the widespread support we found. It is not just parents with school-aged children who are interested.”

According to the poll, released in December, 75 percent of the 400 Floridians surveyed support an end-of-August start date; 62 percent of those surveyed considered it an important issue. Aside from the economic and fairness factors, Kitchens also found many of the people he polled have an emotional attachment to summer: Adults want their children to experience the same kind of school schedule they did while growing up.

Local Control

Those who do not support a uniform start date cited the importance of each school district maintaining independence as the key argument against the legislation. “It’s the responsibility of Seminole County’s elected officials to make that decision,” Seminole County School Board member Sandy Robinson told the Orlando Sentinel on January 15. “It falls under local control.”

But with so many schools starting in the same two-week period, Sturner said, “There is no independence. We are just doing what the next county does. [In offering this proposal], we are not controlling their calendar, just saying you can’t start any earlier than this.”

Jenny Rothenberg ([email protected]) is a public relations associate at Step Up for Students, a Tampa-based initiative of the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

For more information …

For more information on the uniform school start date proposal, log onto Sherri Sturner’s Web site at http://www.saveoursummers.org.