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North Carolina's long summer vacations are being challenged

GARY D. ROBERTSON
FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, file photo, festival goers watch performances at the Emerald Isle, N.C., Beach Music Festival. A 2004 law mandating when North Carolina public schools hold summer vacation is facing its strongest challenge yet from educators and legislators who said more flexibility would improve student performance. The tourism industry and a parents' group are trying to keep summer like it is, with schools starting no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and ending no later than the Friday closest to June 11. (John Althouse /The Jacksonville Daily News via AP, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Some folks can't get enough of summer. Others see it as a problem that needs fixing.

For more than a dozen years, North Carolina has mandated the beginning and end of summer vacation for public schools. The law was designed to support tourism at the state's beaches and mountain getaways, and appease parents who were unhappy as some districts kept moving up the first day of school.

But as studies show flexible school calendars could improve student performance, the law faces its strongest challenge yet. Close to 60 bills have been filed in the General Assembly this year that would exempt local districts, move up the first day of school, or do away with state mandates altogether.

"We know that summer learning loss is one of the biggest issues," said Leanne Winner with the North Carolina School Boards Association. "The easiest way to deal with that would be to not have as long as break — you wouldn't have as much loss."

Lining up in favor of a longer summer are the same associations representing hotels, restaurants and real estate agents that joined many parents in supporting the original 2004 law. They say a traditional summer break helps schools, with tourism generating almost $1.8 billion in revenues in 2015, according to the state's economic development organization.

Lawmakers in the nation's ninth-largest state are juggling these competing demands, trying to improve student test scores and keep parents happy while avoiding moves that could turn tourists away from barrier islands on the Outer Banks and Blue Ridge mountain villages.

Earlier start dates cut out prime vacation weeks for businesses and make it more difficult for teenagers to earn money by waiting tables, cleaning beach houses or lifeguarding, said Trisha Howarth, chairwoman of the North Carolina Vacation Rental Managers Association.

"We have such a short window of time to entertain families," said Howarth, who works on Bald Head Island, a barrier island south of Wilmington where vacation home rentals often include membership to clubs staffed by teens working at golf courses or summer camps.

Fourteen states have some kind of school calendar law, according to a General Assembly report, but Maryland is the only other state that mandates both the beginning and end of summer.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's executive order requires the coming school year to start no earlier than the day after Labor Day and end by June 15, which he said would result in $74 million in direct economic activity and $7.7 million in state and local taxes. Starting school earlier — as Maryland schools were doing — "imperiled" the tradition of the Labor Day weekend as the end of summer, Hogan's order said.

The directive vexed some state education board members. Its vice president resigned, saying the governor's decision could hurt students academically.

North Carolina's law was approved and preserved for years because the Senate leader lived in Dare County, home to Nags Head and Kitty Hawk beaches frequented by East Coast vacationers. Current Republican Senate leader Phil Berger lives 200 miles inland and supports it.

The law "is working well for the economy as a whole. It is working well for families. I see no reason to change it," Berger said in an interview, casting doubt on the two measures that passed the House and need Senate approval.

Louise Lee, a Raleigh parent and founder of Save Our Summers-North Carolina, says parents were crying out for the original law because some districts were scheduling classes to begin in early August and even late July. "They had no other recourse but to come here for help when local schools boards were totally ignoring the pleas of teachers and parents and other concerned citizens," she said.

The current law requires that schools start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11, although there are exceptions for districts in about a dozen of the state's 100 counties where weather-related school closings have been frequent.

Some charter schools and year-round schools already can spread breaks throughout the year. These shorter vacations, along with "targeted intervention" during those breaks, could benefit low-income students, the legislature's nonpartisan watchdog agency said in a February report, citing peer-reviewed academic studies it examined.

Proponents of change say the current calendar's limits force students to take first-semester exams after winter break, making it harder to retain knowledge over the holidays. It also creates scheduling problems for students taking advanced classes at community colleges.

GOP Rep. Jonathan Jordan is from Ashe County, which relies heavily on mountain tourism. But he co-sponsored one of the approved bills, which would allow an Aug. 15 start to match community-college schedules. The other bill would enable districts in 20 counties to experiment with flexible schedules for three years.

"We've got to remember that the education of our kids in pretty important, too, and we've got to balance interests — that's what we do here at the General Assembly," Jordan said.

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