The Mom Stop column: Who benefits from shorter school year?

My kids are already looking forward to summer. With colder than normal weather and what seems like constant rain so far this year, it hasn’t quite yet felt like spring - not much, anyways.

And while I can guarantee my children will be counting down the days until school is dismissed come May - by early August, we are all ready for school to be back in session.

Summers are long, especially for parents of multiple school-age kids. But they could soon be getting longer, at least in Alabama. According to legislation proposed March 5 by Alabama lawmakers, summer vacation could be extended to 11 weeks, starting with the 2021-22 school year. If the legislation passes, school would start no earlier than the third week in August and end by May 31.

Legislators, including Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, said the bill, if passed, will require schools to set a calendar that leaves summer “for families and work experiences.” House Education Budget Chair Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, and Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, have co-sponsored the bill.

But not everyone supports the bill. The Alabama Association of School Boards opposes the proposed legislation, stating that start and end dates for schools should be a local decision. School officials across Alabama also say a longer summer means there will be fewer breaks during the school year, and perhaps longer school days, too. State law currently mandates that schools give a full 180 days of instruction that include six hours per day.

Many school boards across the state, including the Tuscaloosa city school board, have passed resolutions stating that school calendars should remain a local decision, not one mandated by legislators or one that is a “business or tourism decision.”

My question is this: Who does this proposed change in the school calendar really benefit? Hotels or owners of Gulf Coast vacation rentals? Perhaps. Will it spur tourism dollars by extending summer? The state tried that before. It didn’t work.

So who will it benefit? Will less time in schools pull up our national education ranking, almost always at the bottom? As of 2019, Alabama was 49th in education, according to U.S. News and World Reports. Less time in the classroom won’t help that.

Will it help working families? Sure, there may be working families who depend on their teenager’s summer wages to help keep the family afloat, and perhaps a couple extra weeks of wages may help. But how many of those households account for Alabama families with schoolchildren? My bet is a small percentage.

What will be felt by many Alabama working families is the financial impact of paying for child care for the extra weeks that the children are now in school. I’m not only talking about families in poverty. Even in most middle-class families, like my own, save for summer child-care expenses. My husband and I have four college degrees between the two of us and have steady, good careers, and yet we save our tax return every year. Not for beach trips or fancy jewelry. We don’t own new cars or a big house. We save every extra dime we get to pay for child care each summer for our three kids. It’s the reality of a single-parent or two-working parent households.

The idea of children sleeping in every summer morning and spending time with a parent at home, playing in the sprinkler in the yard and taking beach vacations is a nice one. But for many Alabama families, it’s not reality. Children will be at home by themselves or their families will have to struggle to pay for care.

Meanwhile, research has shown that children who are academically “at-risk” will more than likely experience “summer slide” and forget as much as 2 months of reading skills and 2.5 months of math skills over a single summer. The loss is even greater in higher grades. Do we expect teachers to spend the extra “instructional” time during the year trying to catch up on what students lost during their longer summers? Not to mention the fact that children - and their teachers - need short breaks during the year to refresh.

So again, I ask, who does this proposed legislation benefit? It’s not Alabama’s children. And that’s a problem.

Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Reach her at lydia.seabolavant@tuscaloosanews.com.