Last month, the Iowa Department of Education announced that it would no longer automatically let accredited schools start earlier than the law demands. We agree with staff writer Mike Putz that the tussle is a well-timed distraction from the fight over how much money public schools should be allowed to spend.

However, whether the school years start in late August or the first week of September does have an educational impact on public and private schools using a traditional semester calendar. When a school starts earlier, the school can finish first semester before students leave for winter break. If they start later, end-of-the-semester learning and finals are squished in after a several-week break, and academic rigor suffers as a result.

Any significant stretch of time that students spend outside the classroom results in a well-documented loss of what they have learned. The so-called “summer slide” results in a loss of more than two months of math skills, and a similar loss of reading skills in low-income students. It makes sense to start a fresh term instead of giving half-hearted finals in the first couple weeks of January.

In the Western Dubuque district, where the high schools are switching to trimesters next year, school would end June 8 if it started when dictated by law. A normal amount of snow days pushes that date to mid-June, when colleges have already started summer classes.

If the Iowa Department of Education plays hardball and does not grant districts waivers to start earlier in August, smart schools should block professional development days at the beginning of the school year. Taking those days out of the middle of the school year would allow the year to end earlier, and teachers would have the benefit of an intensive training time that would better prepare them for the return of their stampeding pupils.

Our hope remains that the state Department of Education is employing a little political smoke screen of its own: in announcing that they would stop automatically allowing schools to start early, they also said they would grant a waiver if a school district can demonstrate a “significant negative educational impact” to starting later.

If districts can demonstrate the educational benefit of an earlier calendar, the Department would be able to demonstrate to Gov. Terry Branstad the silliness of the law currently on the books. 

The root solution to this problem is changing the current law, which requires schools to start the year the week of Sept. 1. Last year, all but two of Iowa’s 338 schools requested (and were granted) waivers to start the school year earlier than required by state law. Clearly, the law is out of touch with educational practice, and the only thing gained through the process is extra paperwork. Now that’s bureaucracy in action, folks!

The reason for the late-start requirement is that the tourism industry wants summer workers, and the Iowa State Fair doesn’t want the start of school to lower fair attendance or participation. Quite frankly, if it comes down to a question of benefitting the tourism industry or improving the education of our children, the greatest public good lies in education. Besides, the arguments about losing seasonal workers strike us as locally focused and slightly disingenuous—many schools around the country start in August, and people will vacation whenever their kids are out of school.

Most Iowa State Fair participants and attendees are also Iowans. If fair attendance is so important, maybe the fair should consider changing its dates. As much as we love our fair, it should  play second fiddle to the education of Iowa children.

Our Opinion is the consensus of the Dyersville Commercial/Cascade Pioneer editorial board.