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Start of school year gets political

Schools in Michigan are not supposed to start the year until after Labor Day.  It is state law.

It’s been that way since 2005, when Governor Jennifer Granholm signed the post-Labor Day school start law.

Highly controversial

The tourism industry in Michigan had been seeking this for awhile, but had always been blocked by school lobbyists who successfully argued the school calendar should be a local decision.   

But in 2005, Michigan was in a deep recession. Unemployment was higher than the national average and tourism in northern Michigan was really suffering.

New law had an effect

Signing the legislation was good politics. Republicans wanted the bill, and Democrat Granholm was trying to get a jobs package through the Legislature. So, when GOP lawmakers sent her the bill she signed it.

It is hard to overstate how desperate Granholm and other policymakers were to jumpstart the economy and lay the recession to rest. It also gave Granholm another issue to point to as she was getting ready to run for reelection the next year.

August became Michigan’s busiest travel month.

So, a dozen years later, when a bill was rolled out in this session to let schools once again start before Labor Day the travel industry and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce went to work to stop it.

But, they failed to block it in the Senate Education Committee, where only one Republican lawmaker from northern Michigan voted against it. The hearing showed the schools-versus-business divide.

The debate

Schools say they need the flexibility to set their calendars while resorts, hotels and restaurants say it’s not just customers - they also hire high school students to work during their busy season. Repealing the law hits them on both ends of their business.

A compromise was proposed: no classes allowed on Mondays and Fridays in the month of August. But that wasn’t enough to bring the tourism industry and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce on board. They appear to have stopped it on the Senate floor.

But that power play doesn’t mean everything is now static. You can’t stop change.

The consequences

One effect we’re seeing is more year-round schools.   

That’s because schools districts can get a waiver from the state for, among other things, adopting what’s called a “balanced calendar.” School would be interrupted by more but shorter breaks.

The idea is that students don’t forget as much as they do during a three-month long summer break. Education reformers have been calling for this for awhile now.

More and more schools are adopting a version of a year-round calendar. We could see 100 new districts join the ranks of year-round schools by the start of the new school year.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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