Secular school calendar best for all

Published February 9, 2007

School Board mem- bers frequently use the word "choice" in referring to how parents and students select schools, but now I'm more concerned about the choice the board will make regarding the school calendar.

Will it choose inclusion and diversity, or intolerance and favoritism? Will it stand for what's right, or succumb to what's wrong?

It's really that simple.

A school district committee of teachers, parents and school administrators recommended Tuesday that Good Friday be the only religious holiday the district recognizes with a day off. Yet what's needed is a secular calendar - one not connected to religious holidays - that provides people of any faith excused absences for their religious holidays.

The current proposed calendar doesn't include time off for Jewish or Muslim holidays, which creates an air of inequality. I already can hear the schoolkids saying, "My religion is better than your religion."

Some may believe the religion of the majority deserves preference. However, a school district charged with educating all should not exhibit that belief.

For Jews and Muslims, the recommendation adds insult to injury by overlooking their holidays but giving students two days off to go to the Florida State Fair and learn physics by riding carnival rides. That's right, two days. Everyone knows Presidents Day, another holiday in the proposed calendar, is the last day of the fair.

That's as sound as a diet of fried Pepsi and turkey legs.

Of course, the fairness of the secular calendar already would reign if some people outside of the school district had not framed the debate in misleading terms.

Instead of the argument focusing on what's best for all students, it's been characterized as an "us vs. them" battle, an attempt by Muslims and liberals to take away an inherent and important right.

The argument continues to confound because - again - if the student needs to be absent on Good Friday, there's no penalty. Of course, casual observations suggest that Good Friday is more about good leisure than religious observation.

Crowded mall parking lots, long Busch Gardens lines and congested beaches all point to the fact that Good Friday has been more of a vacation day than a religious holiday. I think I could make a better argument for kids being out of school on Ash Wednesday or All Saints Day.

The committee fears that holding school on Good Friday would result in a high rate of student and teacher absenteeism, yet there is no research or data indicating that possibility.

Pinellas County has a secular calendar. It's had school on Good Friday for years, and you know what, the world has kept spinning.

Progress needs to march on in Hillsborough. Too often, I get the feeling certain leaders want to reverse time. Ultimately, the School Board members have two choices. They can send a message to students, teachers and parents that they respect all faiths, and send notice to prospective businesses that employees can enjoy a level of comfort in our community.

Or they can just send us back to the 19th century.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3406.