Don't force schools to play games with calendar
We've long believed that school districts in Minnesota should be able to set their calendars according to the wishes of the local community.
In other words, if Bemidji, Brainerd and Grand Rapids want to protect northern Minnesota's resort industry by keeping kids out of school until after Labor Day, that's fine. But if Rochester, Austin and Stewartville prefer not to bring kids back for two restless, largely unproductive weeks after Memorial Day, they should be able to start school in August.
Minnesota, of course, doesn't allow districts this kind of freedom. In the name of tourism, state law mandates that classes shall begin after Labor Day — unless, of course, a school claims that it needs to get an early start on a summer construction project the following year.
Or unless the school is part of a consortium of schools that claims to be using a "flexible learning year" and gets an exemption from the Department of Education. That's what happened in southwest Minnesota last year, when Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren authorized 25 school districts to start school before Labor Day, ostensibly to give them more classroom days before the MCA-II tests this spring.
Now it's southeastern Minnesota's turn, as 34 school districts have teamed up to form the Southeast Minnesota Learner Achievement Collaborative. If new Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius signs off on the plan, participating schools this fall would be allowed to start classes in August.
The idea is being pitched not only as a way to improve student performance on standardized tests, but also to save money. Students in Houston, Red Wing, Cannon Falls, Austin and just about everywhere in between — including Rochester — would have a common calendar, thus allowing schools to share costs for staff development projects.
As is the case in southwest Minnesota, the coalition seeks permission to test this calendar for three years.
The potential benefits are significant. With some further tweaking of the academic calendar, it's possible that schools could finish their first semester before the Christmas break. It's never made much sense to send students off for a 10-day vacation, then have them take finals shortly after classes resume in January. Colleges don't function that way, and high schools shouldn't, either.
We hope that when this year's MCA exam results are released this summer, schools in southwest Minnesota show a marked improvement. But even if that doesn't happen, we hope that at some point soon, the Minnesota Legislature will stop telling school districts how to set their calendars — or forcing them to find creative ways around the statute.
The current law is outdated and doesn't give school boards and communities the flexibility to adjust their academic calendars according to the the needs and lifestyles of students and their families.