Baltimore Sun Op-Ed: Maryland Students Should Be in School

Wednesday, August 30, 3:02pm

Md. students should be in school today

Today should have been the first day of school in most Maryland schools. Local boards of education throughout the state historically set their start dates before Labor Day — that is, until the governor decreed through executive order last year that Maryland public schools had to begin after the holiday so Ocean City could benefit from an extra week of tourism. Instead of being in class today, then, roughly 80,000 Baltimore City school children have to find other ways to occupy their time.

Many Marylanders agree with the governor; having an extra week of vacation sounds like a great idea. Am I just a really un-fun mom and antagonistic legislator? I don’t think that’s it — at least not if you believe that our public policy should be driven by data, not politics. I do, and I believe that our education policies should be driven by education data, not tourism data.

Although at first we might not see the real and measurable harm to Maryland students in pushing the school start date back, by almost every measure the data demonstrate that mandating less time in the classroom during the summer months leads to negative short-term and long-term consequences for Baltimore and Maryland.

Longer summers result in less time to learn, and they lead to increasing disparities in achievement for our young people because of the gap in opportunities that kids from different income levels can afford. In fact, Maryland’s schools are dropping in our ranking nationally because our achievement gap is so much greater than other states. Our later school start date will only exacerbate the this problem. Two-thirds of the achievement gap can be attributed to summer learning loss in a student’s early years. That’s a staggering figure and means we could nearly eliminate a problem that has been plaguing our schools for decades if we would only follow the research, rather than the politics.

This need for cutting summer-learning loss should resonate now more than ever. The PARCC assessments released last week demonstrate Maryland students are falling behind: In grades three through eight, only 41 percent of students passed English, and only a third passed the math assessment. Chester Finn, one of the governor’s appointees to the State Board of Education, wrote an article decrying this policy — in part because of the summer learning loss and also because, as he said, “we’ve known for decades that U.S. kids spend less time in school than their high-achieving peers in other lands.”

Also, the more time young people spend in the classroom and in after-school activities, the less likely they are to get into trouble or be at risk. We’ve lost three Baltimore City teenagers to gun violence just this month. As my legislative team and I laid out in our proposal to reduce violence in Baltimore earlier this summer, the link between school success and juvenile safety is clear, and so, investing in our school programming and keeping kids in schools must be part of any true violence prevention plan. Although Gov. Hogan has said he wants to help the city address its violence, he has jettisoned our school board’s local option to open city schools in August. His executive order demonstrates a limited understanding of how to prevent youth violence, and his belief that our students deserve less time learning.

And less food. Because nearly 60,000 Baltimore City students qualify for free and reduced meals, and nearly 400,000 Maryland students do, those students are not getting the nutrition during the summer that they need or that they receive during the school year. As the No Kid Hungry campaign reminds us, summer isn’t fun when you’re hungry.

Finally, this issue affects all working parents. The average summer camp costs over $300 per week, and many families simply cannot afford to pay that amount — let alone the headaches caused by shorter hours and lack of transportation. Just last week I knocked on a door where a mom had come home from work and had been forced to leave her middle-school daughter alone with her toddler sons all day because her children’s summer care had closed unexpectedly and she had to go to work. Now she and many other parents have to worry about another week each year of trying to hold it all together. Parents from all income brackets who rely on camps and daytime care for our children are picking up the tab for the governor’s nod to tourism, and that’s not right.

I agree with Chester Finn, our teachers, principals and education advocates. Governor, your policy may be good for the vacation industry, but it’s not good for Maryland kids. Our students should be in school today.

Del. Brooke Lierman represents District 46 in Baltimore City in the state legislature. Her email is brooke.lierman@house.state.md.us.