Early school start dates are fine when a little control is given up


Schools don’t take kindly to the state’s effort to control and push for later start dates. Earlier start dates mean semester-ending tests can be taken before winter break and schedules can more closely align with college courses. Later start dates mean families can attend the Iowa State Fair or do any number of activities planned for August. But if schools eased control on absenteeism policies, they could have their early start dates and families could also attend the state fair.

Language on absenteeism policies is pretty subjective. Iowa Code 299.8 states that a child failing to attend school as required is considered a truant unless there is a reasonable excuse for the absence. And school handbooks typically state that a student may be excused by a parent for a valid reason. I like to believe this vague terminology is intentional so that a thoughtful school administrator can identify a reasonable family request as an excused absence.

Thinking back to when my kids were younger, I possessed a reverse understanding. As a parent, I made decisions that I felt were best for my family and had the expectation that the school would support those decisions. That actually included pulling my kids out of school for a week to go on a cruise.

My kids used to joke that we couldn’t take a family vacation unless it was to a state that bordered Iowa. Like many young families, we were struggling to get a foothold financially and living within our means in the meantime. But when our ten-year wedding anniversary approached, we wanted to do something big to mark the event and do it together as a family. We went on a cruise. First time for all of us. Flew to Miami. First experience flying for the kids. Arranged to have a few extra days in Miami so that we could eat at an authentic Cuban restaurant and tour the Everglades. Rode an airboat and saw alligators. Saw the ocean. Another first for the kids. The cruise, itself, was quite an adventure for them. And in their young, sheltered lives they saw a homeless person for the first time when we docked at one of our ports. They gained experiences and perspectives in that one week that opened up the world to them and likely altered their view of the world as well.

Photo by Rachael Halvorson

Photo by Rachael Halvorson

The kids were good students, and I made sure they got their homework assignments for the week so they could be completed and turned in when they returned. The staff and administration were supportive and eager to hear about their adventure.

That was a private school. While I entrusted them with my children every other week of the school year, they entrusted me to be the cruise director of my children’s educational lives for one week. It seemed that the administration understood us to be their customers, a connection more easily made for a private school. Without voluntary, non-subsidized, tuition-paying families, there would be no school. Families are very important to them.

But, the same should be true for public schools. Even though public schools have a geographically determined and captured supply of students and are automatically funded by the taxpayers, the student/parent/family is still the customer. Hillary Clinton wrote in, “It Takes a Village,” that, “Children and their parents are customers of public education, but they are rarely asked what could be improved.”

Perhaps greater respect for families’ ability to be the occasional cruise director for their children’s educational lives is something that could be improved. School start dates are insignificant if families are allowed to make reasonable decisions that are beneficial to the child, regardless of whether or not it fits within a school’s absenteeism policy that sometimes allows for very few missed days—excused or unexcused. Showing cattle at the state fair, helping your family can or freeze a large harvest from the garden, or even celebrating with your family to mark an important event by going on a cruise—these are all reasonable family decisions that could, never less, put a black mark on their student’s attendance record.

My kids graduated from the private school and completed their junior and senior high years at a public school. I can say that both schools were staffed with competent and caring teachers. The majority of our teachers do an amazing job, and I understand they are under an enormous stress to see to it that our students are well educated and perform well on standardized tests. Parents want the same thing except they have even higher expectations. They want well-educated and well-rounded children. They want to provide as many life experiences as possible for their child, and some of those life experiences—such as competing for a blue ribbon at the state fair and all the important lessons that go along with it—simply cannot be obtained on a high school campus.

What could be the potential consequence if some schools continue to start in the middle of August? It is possible that families may choose not to attend the state fair. Even if they do not fear their school’s attendance policies, families may personally not want the added responsibility of trying to juggle both school and other interests. Families already have a lot of stressors. It would be reasonable for them to choose a simpler life. On the other hand, it is also possible that school absenteeism will be high in August because families may decide, for example, that 4H projects at the state fair take a higher priority than the classroom. Some families thrive on full schedules and multiple responsibilities. It’s a reasonable choice, as well.

In either case, the family—the school’s customer—will have spoken. We should all listen to those cruise directors.