School bells won't ring earlier

Published April 11, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- Students and parents seeking an earlier start to public school in the fall failed Tuesday as a House panel sided with the tourism industry and voted to leave current law unchanged.

The decision leaves intact a law passed last year that no school district can start classes earlier than 14 days before Labor Day, or Aug. 20.

A similar proposal in the Senate was voted down two months ago.

Critics of a uniform statewide starting date say each school board should have the power to set its own calendar, but powerful forces fought to preserve the status quo, which itself is only a year old.

They included theme parks, hotels and restaurants worried that a shorter summer will cost them profits from family vacations and part of their labor force of teenage summer workers.

"Let's let kids have a summer," said Will McKinley, a lobbyist for Universal Studios, one of several theme parks that support leaving the law alone, along with Disney World and Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

At Tuesday's hearing, three high-performing students at Jacksonville's Stanton College Preparatory School argued in favor of a bill to let each local school board set the starting date for classes.

Students said the two-weeks-before-Labor-Day rule leaves too little time to prepare for exams such as the FCAT or advance placement courses that provide college credits for high school students.

"It's frustrating," said Caitlin Carroll, 17, after the vote.

Leading the push for an earlier start date was Rep. Dick Kravitz, a Jacksonville Republican who said a "one size fits all" school calendar is wrong in a diverse state with 67 school districts.

"This is a home rule issue," Kravitz said.

His allies include school superintendents, school boards and some parents.

But others argued that Florida schools already open sooner than most northern states, and that kids should not swelter in classrooms in August in schools with weak air conditioning units.

Freshman Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Parkland, led the effort to maintain a uniform calendar, and the House Schools & Learning Council voted 11-3 to leave the law intact.

Four Tampa Bay lawmakers voted to keep the law as is: Republicans Trey Traviesa of Brandon and Seth McKeel of Lakeland and Democrats Bill Heller of St. Petersburg and Janet Long of Seminole.

Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, voted in favor of allowing an earlier school starting date.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.