Why would Missouri lawmakers take local control of school calendar away from districts?

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Rhonda Schier, chief of museum services, talks about the 46,000-square-foot Gateway Arch visitor center expansion project set to open in July 2018.

Legislation that would wrest control of the school calendar away from local Missouri districts is a short-sighted play for tourism dollars that could have long-term consequences.

A Missouri Senate committee has advanced a bill that would mandate when districts can start the school year, an ill-conceived effort to give tourism-related businesses more time in August to reap the financial benefits of summer vacations. House Bill 161 would prohibit local school districts from beginning the school year more than 14 calendar days before the first Monday in September.

The measure, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Jeff Knight of Lebanon, would take local control away from school boards at the behest of the tourism industry.

Many educators are staunchly opposed and rightly so. Local school officials understand the needs of their students, staff and communities, said David Luther, a spokesman for the Missouri Association of School Administrators. And lawmakers should leave scheduling to local school boards.

In recent years, Missouri school districts have moved toward starting classes in early August and ending the school year in late May. But proponents of the bill, including amusement park operators and hotel owners, argue that this scheduling trend has cut the summer season short, reducing tourism revenue.

Tourism is essential to the state’s economy, but the desire to squeeze in a few more vacation days in August shouldn’t dictate the school calendar — or trump educators’ valid arguments about what’s best for kids. For example, an earlier start date allows more schools to finish final exams before winter break and to squeeze in additional teaching days before students take standardized tests.

Missouri is one of only 16 states that restrict when school districts can begin classes. If approved, the bill would take effect in the 2020-21 school year, pushing back the start date for some districts to the last week of August. Kansas City Public Schools, which started the 2018-19 academic year on Aug. 13, would begin Aug. 24 in 2020.

The later start date also could create challenges for families that depend on free and reduced-price lunches in many school districts, including Hickman Mills and North Kansas City. Hickman Mills offers free meals to all of its students. In North Kansas City, about 80 percent of schoolchildren at Winnwood and Crestview elementary schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

“By delaying school until right before Labor Day, there are some gaps in there that for some kids, it just causes them some problems,” said Tammy Henderson, executive director of community relations and governmental affairs for North Kansas City Schools.

A one-size-fits-all start date for public schools is not the answer to fix what ails the state’s tourism industry.

Local districts know what’s best for Missouri schoolchildren, and they should set their own calendars.