Thursday, January 31, 2019

Movement on School Calendar Bills and A New Elective Course on The Bible???

Might this be the year that we put a dent in Virginia's School Calendar Law, affectionately called the King's Dominion Law? As you probably know, this is the law that requires Virginia's public schools to start after Labor Day unless they have been granted a waiver by the VA Board of Education. The King's Dominion Law has been in effect since 1985 but this past year Fairfax was added to the list of school divisions that were granted a weather waiver. With Fairfax being added to the divisions that start before Labor Day, most of Virginia's public school students live in a district that has local control of their own calendars.

The VEA has long supported repealing the King's Dominion Law, but not so that school starts before Labor Day, but, instead to allow the local school boards to set their own opening day that best meets the needs of their students and families. The VA House of Delegates has passed various pieces of legislation over the last few years to make some movement on this issue. The VA Senate has firmly stood with the hospitality and tourism lobby and have defeated this bill year after year. Today we saw something different. Senate Bill 1005 from Senator Amanda Chase takes a unique approach to repealing the Labor Day rule. She presented a substitute to her bill that she claimed was a compromise between the hospitality lobby and those of us in education. The substitute was not quite that, as the education groups had not signed off on the version she presented to the committee. It was not the Senator's fault as the hospitality folks told her the education groups had signed off on the bill. The substitute went a long way to changing the law, but it didn't protect all of the school divisions that currently have, or are eligible for, a waiver. In fact, the bill carved Fairfax out of the list of divisions that would have their current waivers grandfathered. Apparently the hospitality folks wanted to make sure the largest school division in the Commonwealth would be treated differently and not be granted an automatic waiver. Interestingly it was Senator Sutterlein, who is from Roanoke, who was the champion for all the school divisions in his area, but also for all school divisions that currently have a waiver. As he said, "Local school boards have the right to set their own calendar" and not live with the current law that allows "the  industry" to tell us otherwise." The bill was amended to allow for every school division that currently has, or is eligible to have, a waiver to keep it. It also allows all other school divisions to set their own calendars so long as 1. They start no sooner that 14 days prior to Labor Day, and 2. They give both the Friday before and the Monday of Labor Day off. That substitute reported 10-4 in a huge victory in this fight. We shall see what happens, but the bill in on its way to the floor of the Senate and that's a big deal.

In other news, Senator Carrico's Senate Bill 1502 would require the VA Department of Education to develop curriculum for an elective high school course on Hebrew Scriptures and the Old and New Testaments. The original bill would have required every school board to offer the course, but the patron pulled that back to make it permissive. Each local school board can decide whether or not to offer the course. There was very heated debate on this bill as is singles out a single religion and steps into a separation of church and state argument. The patron brought in an expert to testify on the value of offering this type of coursework. His Harvard expert said, "You can not be considered educated without a working knowledge of the Bible." I won't lie, that rubbed me the wrong way. The whole discussion of this bill did the same. The "expert" went on to say that here is substantial correlation between studying the Bible and student achievement. I tried very hard to not respond to the "expert" but I did feel the need to remind the committee that if they are considering this bill as a means to improve student outcomes, there are other important steps they could take that would include state support for more school counselors, state support for smaller class sizes, state support for programs that support teachers, and state support that provide resources for families. The bill reported from the committee and will go to the floor of the Senate for, what I expect to be a heated debate.