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Uniform start dates for schools could save state millions
Back to School (Later)

Hundreds of millions of dollars are lost each year when public school districts begin classes in early August due to extra holidays throughout the year, according to a report by Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

"It's costing Texans $790 million annually," Strayhorn said. "The school year is more than two weeks longer now than it was 50 years ago, but the number of instructional days is the same."

Saving Summer: Lessons Learned, released by the Comptroller in September 2004, shows that Texas students receive an average of 24 student holidays per school year, including an average of three and a half days off for teacher staff development days. The report estimated each extra holiday costs parents, teachers, students and businesses about $68 million per day, statewide.

Any given day
In 2001, the Texas Legislature required public schools to schedule the first day of classes during the week of August 21, said Tina Bruno, executive director for Texas for a Traditional School Year (TTSY). If August 21 falls on a Saturday, the first school day can be any day in the prior week. If the day falls on a Sunday, schools must start the following week.

Before 2001, the only other time school districts were given a set time period for the first day of classes was from 1985 to 1990, when schools were required to start classes during the week of September 1.

The new legislation was a compromise between parents who wanted a uniform statewide start date and school boards that wanted to retain control over their districts, Bruno said. But there are ways around the legislation.

In 2004, August 21 fell on a Saturday, requiring schools to begin classes any day during the August 16-20 week. The Texas Education Agency, however, granted more than 100 Texas school districts waivers allowing them to start before August 16.

The Comptroller study found that 15 of the state's largest 50 districts started school before August 16, including three that started the first week of August.

The early start dates are costly since schools are more expensive to operate during August, Bruno said. The Comptroller estimated the statewide electricity cost for an average August day at $3.8 million. The state could save nearly $2 million a day by eliminating all August school days and extending the school year farther into May, when the average daily electricity cost is $1.9 million.

Domino effect
Local businesses and state tourism also suffer. Schlitterbahn Waterpark, the 10th most popular tourist attraction in the state, ends its summer season early due to August start dates, said Sherrie Brammall, Schlitterbahn communications director. Many of the park's 1,800 to 2,000 employees are high school students, teachers and bus drivers.

If schools started in September, the Comptroller said seasonal businesses could remain open and generate more money for employees and more disposable income for local economies. The Comptroller reported high school students statewide lose nearly $8 million in potential income for every lost day from the summer break. Teachers who work part-time jobs during the summer lose about $4 million statewide.

"The trend to start [school] earlier and earlier baffles us," Brammall said. "Children never got a single day more of instruction. If there were any evidence that starting school in August helps kids, I don't think we'd be talking about this."

The Comptroller said she will renew her call to the 2005 Legislature to explore alternatives to early start dates and examine start-date waiver loopholes.

Ann Holdsworth