By Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford
Mid-July is the very heart of summer, when the temperatures are high and the cool breezes of fall seem a distant dream.
Once, fall was associated with school starting back up, though few think like that now. Over the past decade the school start-date has crept earlier and earlier, with most schools beginning the first week of August. Most educators and parents of school-age children have come to expect back-to-school sales to happen right now, not later.
There were several reasons for this trend. The number of school days was increased to make sure Alabama students had as much class time as those in other states. Another critical factor was that the “all-important” standardized tests are given in March, which pushed school systems to get in as much class time before they were administered. Then there was the idea of giving students a fall “break.” The result was an ever-shortening summer vacation.
This year and the next will be different. A bill passed the Legislature that requires schools to start no earlier than two weeks before Labor Day. Most schools will now start August 20th instead of August 6th. The bill adds two weeks of summer vacation to family calendars.
The reason for an extended summer is simple: money.
First, running a school during the hottest month of the year drives up energy costs. Keeping a classroom at a temperature that is conducive to teaching and learning while outside the thermometer often hits triple digits is very expensive. Reducing the number of days when energy use is greatest will save Alabama schools millions of dollars.
Second, an extended summer vacation will hopefully prompt just that – more family vacations. Tourism is a significant part of Alabama’s economy, with just under ten percent of jobs statewide related to the travel industry. Increased tourism spending directly benefits schools because every penny of the state income and sales tax is dedicated to the Education Trust Fund.
The additional weeks of summer break are estimated to generate more than $20 million in education funding. The additional revenue played a part of making sure there were no teacher layoffs this year.
But there is a downside to an extended summer break: learning loss of students.
Years of research show that summer learning loss is real and increases with the length of a break. When students are not engaged in some type of learning over several weeks they lose math and reading skills.
There are some simple ways to combat learning loss. One is to make sure children read during the summer.
You can also find fun ways to engage your children in math. If your family plans to take that last summer vacation, teach the children to read a map and calculate distance. Allow them to be in charge of their last summer vacation budget and keep track of spending and balances.
Engaging children in the skills they will need when school restarts is critical for their success in the next year and beyond.
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader of the State House of Representatives. He has served in the Alabama House of Representatives since 2000. In 2010, Representative Ford was elected House Minority Leader by the House Democratic Caucus. He was re-elected Minority Leader in 2012.