State Senators Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, recently announced plans to file legislation next year that would mandate a later start for every public school district, arguing this would boost Kentucky’s tourism industry. However, education leaders from around the state have pushed back against this idea, saying it could have a negative effect on students and undermine local control of schools.

State Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown
State Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown

While local school districts currently have discretion on when to begin the year, Thayer and Girdler’s proposal would prohibit schools from starting any earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26. They both argue that Kentucky’s tourism industry is missing out on millions of dollars worth of revenue during August while kids are in school, and children from rural communities are not able to help on family farms.

Girdler has cited lost revenue during August from a water park in his district, while Thayer told his local Grant County News that his legislation would provide a financial boost to the proposed Ark Encounter theme park in his district.

“Grant County is set to become a major tourist destination due to the presence of the Ark,” said Thayer. “But there won’t be many families from Kentucky visiting in August if we continue with the current calendar.”

However, the Grant County News also quoted several local school officials in the district who opposed the plan, calling it government overreach that might help tourism at the expense of education, in particular learning loss over a longer summer break.

Stu Silberman
Stu Silberman

Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, tells Insider Louisville that he agrees with the criticism of the proposed bill, saying such a decision should be left up to local school districts.

“There’s lots of discussion about overreach, and this is a local control issue where we don’t need overreach taking place,” says Silberman. “To me it comes down to local communities making those decisions. And that’s why we elect our boards of education, to make that kind of educational decision for their community.”

Silberman added that unless school districts cut back on contingency days and fall and spring breaks, the school year could cut into much of June, potentially undermining the argument of the legislation adding to summer tourism dollars.

“What we have heard from a lot of educators is that as we approach May, the attention span of students is not as good,” said Silberman. “Thayer makes some good financial points, but I do think that this is about what local communities believe is best for their children.”

Chris Brady, a board member of the Jefferson County Public Schools, shares such criticism of mandating a later beginning of the school year.

“I find it very interesting that folks of a particular party whose mantra seems to be local control continually want to take this local control away from those who are closest to it,” said Brady. “Tourism is important to the state, but it’s not as important as education. And these decisions are made with the kids’ best education interest in mind. I’m sensitive to the fact that we want to boost our tourism, but not at the expense of our kids’ education.”

Brady added that if the school year is pushed back — especially with the recent increase in snow days — this will cut back on the amount of material students can be taught before spring testing.

“It would effect the kids, because you’re having less classroom time to prepare for state mandated testing and college entrance exams,” says Brady. “And once you get past those exams and you’re just tacking on extra days, you can do a good deal of learning, but it’s not going to be the in-depth learning that you’d get before these testing deadlines.”

Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens did not respond to a request for comment on the proposed legislation. Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo has indicated tentative support for the idea behind the legislation, and a spokesman for Louisville amusement park Kentucky Kingdom told WAVE3 they support the bill, as they cut back on their August hours of operation once school begins.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]