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Cookson’s school calendar effort garners some, but not all, education support

ST. LOUIS — If Rep. Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff, had it his way, Missouri children would still be on summer vacation.

Cookson sponsored a bill last session that would create a unified school calendar year, starting Sept. 1 and ending May 31. In addition, students would have to be in school a total of 1,078 hours. Unfortunately for Cookson, House Bill 1016 died during session.

Rep. Steve Cookson
Rep. Steve Cookson

However, the odds of him bringing the bill back up are high as he has put forward some version of HB 1016 each of the three years since he was first elected.

“Each (bill) would be a little different as I learn more and others present challenges to me,” Cookson said.

During 2011, House Bill 849 stated the first day of school is the first Tuesday after Labor Day and could end no later than the Friday before Memorial Day. During 2012, House Bill 1732, stated the same school year, but increased from 1,044 hours required to 1,050 hours.

Cookson said he’s received support from the tourism industry in his effort.

Mike Lodewegen, Director of Legislative Advocacy for the Missouri Council of School Administrators, said he’s “not a big fan” of the Sept. 1 start date in HB 1016 and is familiar with similar attempts in the past to change the school calendar.

“That’s been a proposal that’s been put out there before particularly from folks down in the Branson area over the past several years because they feel like they lose some of their workers who have to go back to school and it hurts tourism as well,” Lodewegen said. “That’s their position. Unfortunately, waiting until Sept. 1 is going to be a big problem with a lot of schools. If we have some of these issues with weather, they could look being in school late into the summer.”

Chip Mason, Director of Government Relations for Herschend Family Entertainment spoke with The Missouri Times’ Scott Faughn earlier during session, but was unavailable to comment — as was Herschend Family Entertainment.

“An across-the-board, uniform school start date for all Missouri schools would have a positive impact on tourism within the state,” Mason said during session. “And it would not help as much for the schools to get out earlier in the year as it would to start later, say after Labor Day. Better weather in August as compared to May or June.”

There are seven Herschend Family Entertainment attractions located in Branson, Mo., including Silver Dollar City and Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. Pete Herschend, co-owner of the company, is the President of the Missouri State Board of Education.

Cookson also said “some” members of the Missouri State Board of Education have backed him. He would not comment on which board members specifically who support the unified school calendar year.

Mike Lodewegen, Director of Legislative Advocacy for the Missouri Council of School Administrators
Mike Lodewegen, Director of Legislative Advocacy for the Missouri Council of School Administrators

Currently, Cookson said there are no statewide rules for the school calendar year and that schools could go from July through February if they wanted.

“There are no guidelines, there’s nothing,” Cookson said. “It’s all local control. It’s an extreme amount of local control.”

However, Lodewegen said the idea of local control “seems to be popular” among leaders in Jefferson City. He added a few years ago, when drafting versions of the School Improvement Plan, there was a statute with a required start date but it had an exception.

“It gave the districts an ability to opt out and the majority did opt out,” he said.

Lodewegen is in favor of changing the requirements from a set number of days to a set number of hours. HB 1016, for example, proposed 1,078.

“It would give flexibility to the schools, not just the struggling ones but the ones who want to try some innovative things,” he said.

Otto Fajen, Missouri National Education Association legislative director, also was in favor of local control. He said it’s common to always have a push from “various sectors” to control the school calendar.

“We have such incredible diversity in Missouri in terms of the challenges the kids face, the size of the school district,”Fajen said. “We think it’s very important to give a fair amount of flexibility in things like when you start and stop school, how you evaluate educators.”

He said after 23 years of helping draft education law, he is cautious of the idea of writing one proposal that is ideally a “perfect fit” for the 520 districts across the state.

A shorter school year with increased hours would mean longer school days, Cookson said. Gov. Jay Nixon in his State of the State address said he is in favor of a longer school day. An extra hour in the school day, Cookson added, could allow in-school time for acceleration or enrichment activities such as the arts and sports. What to do with extra time in a school day would be up to the districts, he said.

An extra hour in school could be beneficial to students and keep them away from trouble, Cookson added.

According to the U.S. Office of Justice Programs, 29 percent of violent crimes committed by juveniles are between 3 and 7 p.m.

Cookson said he would like to move the state education assessments — currently called MAP testing — to be no earlier than May. Having the testing any earlier forces teachers to “fluff and fill in that month (May) of school,” he said. He added he doesn’t want teachers to “teach to the test” but having the testing pushed back is “teaching up to a benchmark” and students are “learning all they can to be best prepared.”

HB 1016 never made it to a full-fledged vote as the bill died, so to speak, after its first public hearing in the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, which Cookson chairs.