HB360 is no day at the beach

Published 4:30 pm Friday, April 20, 2012

It has been a long time since I’ve heard of anything out of the state’s legislative sessions that comes across as entirely ridiculous as this Flexible Schools Calendar Act of 2012.

First off, I must commend those within the legislature for attempting some brand of outside-of-the-box thinking. That can be awfully difficult at times. So the effort gets a gold star. The result however, well, that’s just a pitiable offense.

The first, and most humorous, thing that stands out about this Flexible Schools Calendar Act is that it is rather unaptly named. The title of the legislation would seem to indicate that local school systems would ultimately achieve a greater deal of flexibility in the making of their respective academic calendars each year. However, quite the opposite is the case as the act would all but dictate the start and end dates of the school year without providing any sort of relief in terms of the number of days in the classroom.

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Granted, the bill would allow for systems to add 26 minutes to the school day, resulting in 170 days of actual classroom instruction and the hourly equivalent of 180 days. But, most school systems can’t go that route because it would result in the need to pay unsalaried workers time and a half for 26 minutes a day for 170 days. The end result there is a hit of more than $800 a year for every worker who earns minimum wage.

Given that the vast majority of these staffers make markedly more than that, the hit is substantial for school systems. So the “flexible” part of the act isn’t flexible at all for those school systems who are financially strapped.

So, essentially, all the act (HB 360) is going to do is create a rigorous calendar in which teachers and students have far less days off. While that doesn’t sound like a reason to riot on the surface, trust me, it will be come April of 2013 when teachers and students have been in school every week day since Jan. 22. At that point, cabin fever sets in. Teacher morale is low. Students are sick of one another. Fights will break out. Probably not between the teachers. But the altercations between students will likely increase. Ask just about anyone who is in education. They’ll tell you that the longer you go in between breaks, the more discipline problems there are.

But, even the calendar that would likely be created by the bill is not the biggest problem with it. The biggest problem is the logic. It is fatally flawed.

The whole notion behind the bill is that by not allowing school to start until later in August, that families from near and far will use their newfound freedom from school to spend time and money on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. That’s why this bill is in the Tourism and Marketing Committee of the state senate. It’s designed to promote Alabama’s beaches.

The bill’s proponents expect that those two weeks in which students are not in school will result in $22 million of financial stimulus for the state. They base that expectation on a two-week stretch in which Alabama’s Gulf Coast netted $22 million in economic impact. The problem is, that two-week stretch was in June.

June is prime beach season. And, while lawmakers would like August to be a continuation of prime beach season, the fact is that just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come.

In August, football players, band members, volleyball players and the like all have practice schedules as they ready for the start of their respective seasons. So there is some of that beach crowd gone.

Most folks have already taken their beach trip. (It was probably during that two week stretch in June). So a second trip isn’t altogether likely. And, if anything, the hypothetical August beach trip probably takes away from the beach trip they would have taken Labor Day weekend or some other time.

Also, of the $22 million in June, there is no way of tracking how many of those dollars were already in Alabama. Even if the extended August beach window enables Alabama citizens to go to the beach, what of those from Tennessee or Georgia or other neighboring states? How many of those $22 million came from out of state?

And, more than anything, where are Alabama’s families going to get the dollars for another beach trip? There is nothing in the bill to lower gas prices or donate a “beach trip” fund to each of Alabama’s families. And, those who had the money and wanted to go to the beach again, probably would have done so in July. They didn’t need the extra two weeks. So, rather than creating new money, HB 360 will probably just move money around.

The idea is nice. Find a way to stimulate the economy. The data and the conclusions drawn from it are misguided.

But, lawmakers will tell you this is about saving teachers jobs. They will tell you that this will enable them to keep the divisors lower, a notion that they seemed pretty married to in the first place before HB 360 needed some momentum. Then, all of a sudden, Senate Bill 318 pops up and says that the divisors need to be raised more than initially thought. But, conveniently, the legislature could stomach keep the divisors lower as long as HB 360 passes. Since, you know, HB 360 is going to be like printing money.

We all want teachers jobs saved. And AEA and the state superintendents have little choice but to grit their teeth and take this one. But HB 360 isn’t about flexible school calendars and it isn’t about saving teachers jobs. It’s about promoting tourism. And that’s fine. But making changes of this magnitude based on fundamentally flawed data and wildly optimistic assumptions isn’t going to make things better. It will probably make them worse.