Minn. lawmakers consider giving schools the option to start before Labor Day

Eidman family of St. Paul
The Eidman family of St. Paul, from left, Keith, Martha, Cherste and Sophie. The Eidmans say they're busy in the summer, but an earlier school start wouldn't cramp their schedule. Both Martha and Sophie say they are bored by the end of summer and would not mind going back to school in late-August.
MPR photo/Tim Post

Minnesota lawmakers are considering a bill that would give school districts the choice to start the academic year before Labor Day, a measure that has sparked a perennial debate over whether an early school start hurts tourism.

Minnesota is one of a handful of states that, in most cases, doesn't allow schools to start classes before Labor Day. The long summer is a hit with Minnesota businesses that depend on late-summer trips by families.

Keith and Cherste Eidman, for example, take their active family on at least one week-long Minnesota camping trip every summer.

Their children — 11-year old Martha, 9-year old Sophie and Spencer, 6 — also take part in a number of day camps during the summer months.

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All three Eidman children attend public school, L'Etoile du Norde, a French immersion school in St. Paul. As much as she loves summer break, Martha said before it's over she's ready to go back to school.

"When it first starts we're like 'WOO, it's summer!' " she said. "In the middle it's like 'Oh this is so cool.' And two weeks before school starts we're like, 'Oh my God, I'm so bored, there's nothing to do here.' "

To be fair, you're likely to find a lot of Minnesota kids who are not so enthusiastic about an early return to school.

But that legislation authored by state Rep. Connie Doepke, R-Orono, could put have them in the classroom earlier.

Current state law prohibits pre-Labor Day starts unless a district obtains a special waiver from the state. More than 30 districts in the state, including Minneapolis and 25 districts in southwestern Minnesota, have gone through that process.

Doepke's bill scraps that law.

"The bill is in no way mandatory," she said. "What it does is allow local communities to decide when is the appropriate date for them to start the school year."

In recent years, similar bills have met stiff resistance from lobbyists for the state's tourism industry who say when school starts early, the vacation season ends early.

"We should give some thought to the benefits to the economy of having a predictable school calendar that leads to a predictable definition of summer," said Dan McElroy, president of Hospitality Minnesota.

McElroy, whose group represents tourism interests at the state Capitol, said 1,400 resorts and campgrounds in Minnesota rely on the weeks between mid-June and Labor Day for most of their business. He said allowing schools to start early would cut about two weeks off of late summer vacation time, hurting campgrounds, resorts and hotels — especially in northern Minnesota.

Doepke's legislation answers that concern with a compromise of sorts.

If school districts choose to start before Labor Day, they could not hold class on the Thursday and Friday before the holiday. That would give families five days to take a short end-of-summer vacation or spend some time at the State Fair, she said.

Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, supports the bill.

"We believe that's a good compromise for all the parties concerned," Amoroso said. "And it does provide opportunities for school boards and communities to make decisions they feel are in the best interest of their children."

Amoroso said allowing schools to start earlier would mean more time to prepare students for mandatory tests in the spring. He said schools could align their schedules, and share classes, with local community colleges.

An earlier start also would allow schools to let students out earlier, in mid- to late-May, instead of the first part of June.

Mark Novotny, who owns the Hyde-A-Way Bay Resort near Hackensack, Minn., about 200 miles north of the Twin Cities, doesn't like the bill. Adding a long Labor Day holiday hasn't changed his mind.

"If they start before Labor Day that means less family vacations in the summertime," he said.

Novotny, president of the Congress of Minnesota resorts, fears once families are in a back-to-school frame of mind, they won't consider a late summer family vacation, even with five days off at Labor Day.