Students and their families would get more free time in August under a legislative proposal that would require Georgia public schools to start no earlier than the week before Labor Day.
Sponsors of the measure say it's a response to parents' complaints about the forward creep of the school calendar, which in many counties now begins in early August or, in some cases, late June. The earlier start dates also contribute to higher air-conditioning costs for local schools and lower air quality, particularly in the areas around Atlanta.
Under the bill, sponsored by mostly coastal and metro Atlanta lawmakers, schools would not be able to start any sooner than the last Monday in August. The latest schools could open their doors would be the Wednesday following Labor Day.
Critics contend that strips control of the calendar from local school boards -- who know their people better than the General Assembly -- and makes decisions based on what's best for coastal tourism as opposed to what benefits students.
"We're for local control and for letting our local school systems decide what's best, but on the other hand, we also have to listen to the will of the people," said House Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter, R-Duluth. "And ... out there in the real world, they're telling us loud and clear that they don't like the start date getting earlier and earlier each year."
House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, another co-sponsor of the bill, said the comments he's receive so far have run as much as three-to-one in favor of the proposal.
"I'm hearing from parents all over the state," he said.
But some lawmakers are uneasy about the proposal.
"I think we need to be very careful about legislating things from Atlanta that should be decided at the local level in each school system," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Stephens, R-Canton. Sen. Stephens said he was unaware of any similar proposals in the upper chamber and said many of his colleagues in the Senate had concerns about mandating a later start date at the state level.
Similar legislation has passed in other Southern states, including North Carolina.
For their part, local districts say they don't need the state dabbling in the school calendar. Mike Wooten, a spokesman for Clarke County schools, said moving the start date later in the year could give some students less time to prepare for end-of-course tests administered by the state and Advanced Placement tests, which allow students to gain college credits while still in high school.
Schools can only give students those tests during certain time windows, Mr. Wooten said.
"It's not as simple as it seems. ... When you move one thing, you affect something else," he said.
Other administrators said the proposal was little more than a sop to the tourism industry, from coastal attractions to parks like Six Flags over Georgia.
"I think it's been nicknamed the 'Whitewater bill,'" quipped Charles Price, an assistant superintendent in Rockdale County, alluding to a water park near Atlanta.
Rep. Keen didn't fully discount the effects of tourism on his support for the bill, but said it wasn't his only concern.
"Sure, tourism is a component of that. But also August being the hottest month of the year, to air condition our classrooms and school buses and others to meet during that time is, particularly in a Southern state that goes all the way to the borders -- it's hot down there in August, just as it's hot here."