RICHMOND, Va. (CBSDC/AP) — A legislative priority in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s public education package that would allow local schools to open before Labor Day failed a major Senate panel vote Thursday, a victim of Virginia’s well-financed business and tourism lobbies.
The Senate Education and Health Committee killed the bill Thursday on a 9-6 vote after lobbyists for vacation resorts, amusement parks, beach towns and historical sites along with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce spoke against it.
Known as the Kings Dominion Law for the major amusement park located 24 miles north of Richmond, the state policy has helped tourist attractions augment their staffs with the inexpensive labor of students during summer vacation season through Labor Day.
Only Virginia and Michigan dictate such late academic start dates. While the law affects only 55 of Virginia’s 132 school districts, it touches an overwhelming majority of students because it affects schools in eastern Virginia, including populous tourist destinations in Hampton Roads, the Peninsula and the Washington, D.C., suburbs in northern Virginia.
The bill, which allows local school boards to determine starting dates, was among several aimed at bringing Virginia’s academic year more in line with those of other states, which begin in early to mid-August. At least four similar bills await action in the House of Delegates.
In Virginia districts where classes don’t open until nearly a week into September, schools don’t close for the summer until mid-June.
Educators, school superintendents, local school boards and McDonnell’s Education Secretary, Laura Fornash, spoke in favor of the bill, noting that the late start most Virginia pupils get puts them at a disadvantage in advanced placement and international baccalaureate testing.
Dana Raphael, 16, a junior honors student at Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School, told the committee that starting in September sets her and her classmates back. “Unfortunately, my class was not able to get through all the material,” she said.
She said she was confident the bill would be reported to the Senate and surprised but not discouraged to see it fail after a dozen business-suited lobbyists addressing the panel one after another warned that it could cost the state tourism industry about $1 billion, drain away millions of dollars in state and local government revenue and result in job losses.
In some cases, it put officials in the same localities at odds. The Virginia Beach City Council strongly opposed the bill, but the city’s school board lobbied for it.
Bob Matthias, a lobbyist for the coastal resort city of Virginia Beach, said just the prospect of a law that would allow for schools to convene before the late summer peak tourist season ended was harming business.
“What’s happened since 1986 is that the hotel and tourism industry have created a business model based on the fact that they (schools) are going to open after Labor Day,” Matthias said. As an example, he told of a major Virginia Beach hotelier who approached a bank about borrowing money to expand his business. The banker asked the borrower about the proposed change in the state law forbidding schools open before Labor Day.”
“He said, ‘I’m not sure about that,’ and the banker said ‘Well, I’m not sure about your loan,’” Matthias said.
The vote to kill the bill broke down on geographic and economic lines and created some curious bipartisan alliances. Four Democrats from vacation venues — Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, George Barker of Fairfax County, Ralph Northam of Norfolk and J.C. Miller of Newport News — joined five committee Republicans in opposition.
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