Which comes first? Tourism dollars or students?

going back to school

School leaders in Michigan are speaking up in favor of a bill that would leave it to their discretion whether to begin classes sometime in August, rather than early September, so students can retain more of what they learned from the previous school year.

For the past decade, it has been illegal for Michigan’s public schools to hold classes before Labor Day. It’s a law beloved by the state’s tourism industry, where a strong end-of-summer holiday weekend can mean the difference between profit and loss for the resorts, cafes and workers that depend on vacationing Michigan families.   

But, increasingly, Michigan’s endless summer is facing pushback from educators, who worry about the knowledge-sapping consequences of a nearly-three-month break, particularly for low-income children with less access to educationally nurturing summer activities. Making matters more urgent are studies showing Michigan students sinking to the bottom rung of states nationally in K-12 academic performance.

Trying to split the difference between boosting tourism and boosting students is Sen. Marty Knollenberg, an Oakland County Republican. He told Bridge he’s been getting an earful from superintendents who say students simply can’t afford so much time away from their studies.

“We’re realizing now it’s a much more competitive academic environment” for Michigan students, said Knollenberg, whose affluent Senate District extends from Rochester southward through Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills to Royal Oak.

His proposal would not lengthen the state’s 180-day school year. Rather, it would allow local schools – not the state – to decide whether to return in August versus September. Michigan is one of just three states that require classes to begin after Labor Day.   

Under current law, districts that want to begin in August must apply for a waiver from the state Department of Education. Sometimes they are granted, sometimes they’re not. Knollenberg’s bill leaves that decision to local school leaders.  

But there’s a caveat. In an effort to satisfy the tourism industry, Knollenberg’s bill would only allow August classes on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.


Oakland County Republican Sen. Marty Knollenberg is backing a measure that allows local schools, not the state, to decide when students should return to class after summer break.

Mondays and Fridays would remain school-free, leaving long weekends designed to encourage families to drive Up North, or to the nearest lakeshore. The Friday before Labor Day would likewise remain learning-free.

Knollenberg said he initially proposed the bill with no classroom restrictions in August, but received resistance from the tourism industry. Industry representatives rely heavily on the vacation dollars of Michigan families in late August through Labor Day Weekend to turn a profit.

His proposed compromise was not enough for tourism officials. Deanna Richeson, president and CEO of the Michigan Tourism and Lodging Association, said she “recognize[s] it is a compromise effort. However, many of Michigan’s businesses are dependent, disproportionately, on summer revenue for tourism guests.”

Richeson predicted the state “would see some attractions and lodging go out of business” if public schools controlled whether to start classes in August.

The dreaded ‘summer slide’  

Studies have consistently shown that longer summers often mean greater learning loss, a phenomenon known as the “summer slide.”

According the National Summer Learning Association, lower-income children have an even higher risk of losing ground than their middle-income peers ‒ up to two months of math education and three months of reading over the summer.

This contributes to gaps that can leave a child from a poor family three years behind their more affluent peers by fifth grade. Studies show children from higher-income families suffer less of a setback because they have greater to access to enriching educational opportunities, books, and meals during the summer months. In Michigan, that disparity can leave behind a lot of students, with one-in-four children now living in poverty.  

But it’s not just low-income districts that chafe at long summers.

Even in high-achieving Troy, where median household income approaches $90,000, Superintendent Richard Machesky said the September start “has restricted significantly our ability to do things we want to be able to do across our school district to educate kids.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of research around summer learning loss for students. The sooner we get back into the instructional routine for students, the better it will be for them.”

Machesky said he has little interest in balancing the needs of students and the travel industry.

“I don’t think we should be looking at tourism and student needs as competitive,” he said. “We should look at student needs and district needs first, and tourism second.”

Machesky and others also note that many school-related activities already begin in August. There are weeks of football or tennis practice, and band drills or camps for musicians. The only activity that can’t begin earlier is classroom instruction.

“Many of our students are back already and engaged in the fall programming,” he said. “It’s not a huge problem for most families to consider starting before Labor Day.”

Dennis McDavid, superintendent of the Berkley School District, which like Troy is in Knollenberg’s district, raised the same argument, noting “students are effectively back handling school responsibilities, but we’re not in school.”

Urgency to halt decline for Michigan students

This is not the first year Knollenberg and other lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, have attacked the Labor Day law. But their arguments appear to be gaining steam, as educators increasingly consider instituting a more balanced school calendar, and with the state’s recent decision to lengthen the minimum number of instructional days from 175 to 180 over the school year.  

grand hotel

The Grand Hotel is one of the tourism industry businesses that oppose giving public schools the choice of opening before Labor Day. The tourism industry says some businesses may close if fewer families travel in late August through Labor Day.

The summer slide has also coincided with a Michigan slide, with students across the state falling in national education rankings. Michigan’s decline has hit students at all income levels, compared with their demographic peers across the country.

The 2016 Michigan State of Education Report, put out by the Royal Oak-based Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit research and policy group, found that “Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country,” thanks to stalled reading rates among Michigan students and faster educational increases in other states.

Presently, schools that want to begin school before Labor Day can apply for a waiver from the Michigan Department of Education. Over the last few years, there has been an increase in schools and intermediate school districts requesting waivers.

Waiver requests are submitted to the Michigan Department of Education, which  determines whether they should be granted. In recent years, local districts, charter schools and intermediate school districts are more frequently seeking waivers. Knollenberg said 60 percent of waiver applications were accepted last school year.

Even so, tourism representatives contend that giving schools full discretion to begin in August would harm an industry critical to Michigan’s economy.  

Ken Hayward, executive vice president and managing director of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, testified against the bill in front of the Senate Education Committee in December.

“In the nine years since [the] post-Labor Day schools [law] was passed, our hotel occupancy in August has been 3.6 percent higher than the five Augusts leading up to its passage,” Hayward testified.  

“You might think a 3.6 percent difference in occupancy is not that big of a deal, but it translates into enough room nights to fill Grand Hotel an additional night during the month of August. Those approximately 400 room nights at peak season rate are the difference between profit and loss in some seasons.”

Richeson, of the tourism trade group, points to a study commissioned by the MLTA in 2016 that found the Post Labor Day Start Law increased state tourism by $20 million in 2007, the year after it was enacted, based on an analysis of hotel reservation data.

Educators counter that the costs to students are no less critical.

Material that is forgotten over the summer must be taught the next fall, which means schools have to dedicate a month or more re-teaching material from the previous year. Educators say that teachers could spend their classroom time and budgets more efficiently if summers were shorter.

McDavid, the Berkley superintendent, acknowledged that revisiting subjects that were previously taught is part of the learning process. But he said Michigan’s summer break “makes it incredibly difficult to know how much of the reteaching is the natural product of learning, and how much of it it is because they're coming back (so late) from a break.”

Other options?

One alternative that’s been mentioned: Why not have the school year extend until the end of June? That would shorten summer break while making it easier for families to travel during peak tourism season in late summer.

According to Richeson, that would be fine with the tourism industry. June weather is more unpredictable, which dampens travel. “We would rather see school extend further into June and start after Labor Day...That wouldn’t shortchange student learning opportunity...It would, at the same time, have a more favorable support effect on tourism.”

But Knollenberg said that argument ignores another phenomenon that might be called the June swoon, as kids become mentally “checked out” after Memorial Day. Students, he said, will be more prepared to learn in August.

Machesky, of Troy, is also leery of extending school through June. Many of the students in his district “avail themselves of summer learning opportunities.” Camps in Michigan and around the country also begin in June, so ending school later would restrict his students’ ability to participate.

McDavid, of Berkley, added that many high school students and their families visit colleges in the early weeks of summer.

William DiSessa, the Michigan Department of Education’s Office of Public and Governmental Affairs, said MDE supports Knollenberg’s bill, with a key condition. MDE wants the measure amended to allow some programs, including special education, to operate for a full school week in August, and not just three days. The department did not respond to a request for a full interview.

It’s unclear when the Michigan Senate will vote on the bill, which passed the Senate Education Committee by a 4-1 vote in March. Even if it passes this summer, some districts may not be able to take advantage of it in the upcoming year. McDavid noted that in Berkley, the district’s contract with the teachers’ union is already set for the 2017-2018 school calendar. But he said the passage of the Knollenberg law would allow the district to begin conversations about what kind of schedule makes sense in future years.

The tourism industry, meanwhile, said it will continue its opposition, as Knollenberg said he’s committed to pushing his bill. Despite the protests, he said, “I don’t think tourism experts are education experts.”

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Tue, 06/20/2017 - 8:43am

I have a somewhat unique perspective. I'm a current educator, former teacher and served on a school board in northern Michigan for eight years, and my wife's family operates a $30,000,000 four season resort in which we are major shareholders. My view is clear. The decision should be controlled locally by the school board and based on the best educational interests of the students. The traditional school calendar based on our agrarian past is antiquated and not supported by research. In spite of what the local chamber believes, the tourism industry should have no standing in decisions related to the school calendar.

Dick B
Tue, 06/20/2017 - 10:33am

I do agree with Gary on all points. We cannot let our children and grandchildren merely "get by" with 180 days of school per year. Our country is falling farther behind the world in education, and education is where the future is. How can we even consider the tourism industry as being equal or more important that our children's education? The school year dates should be determined locally, by local school boards, who have the responsibility to best educate their students. That should include allowing more than 180 days if they see fit.

dick b
Tue, 06/20/2017 - 12:10pm

You going to pay the teachers or simply demand they donate their time? There is a model. It is in Finland. You people just want education on the cheap. Leave our kids alone. Michigan has a lousy six weeks of summer. The kids deserve it off. We have good schools and smart kids. All we need to do is get the politicians out of our schools and to address inner city poverty. Propaganda in top of propaganda.

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 10:45am

I concur that the details of the school calendar should be set by local school district officials, not the state legislature. I also very strongly support requiring school to be in session for 180 days or equivalent hours of instruction. Rural districts have higher transportation costs and should be free to schedule fewer, longer school days to save money and burn less fossil fuel. What I do NOT support is schools without air conditioning scheduling classes during July and August or past the middle of June. Relatively few Michigan schools have air conditioning throughout, but AC should be required in any buildings (or the specific classrooms used) used for an extended or year-round calendar and for any summer learning or credit recovery programs run by school districts.

My children have all moved on to college or adult life now, but our two-employed-parents family had the greatest amount of trouble with an aspect of school calendars not discussed here. Schools schedule apparently-random "professional development " days and "records" days, or even worse, half-days when students have no school. Childcare for elementary students and transportation coverage at all age levels for these single day or half-day closures posed a problem for us, living in the semi-rural area of a suburb with few other families around us. Eliminating these very short breaks during the school year and incorporating staff professional development or grading/report card prep into the semester (or trimester) breaks given to students, or requiring them to be held before or after the period students are scheduled for classes should easily allow 180 school days to be scheduled between Labor Day and mid-June.

A related issue that arose during high school was the habit our school district had of scheduling high school semester exams during 2 two-hour blocks per day, with no adjustment in the bus schedule while forbidding students to use the library, gym/weight room, cafeteria, or computer center during the rest of the normal school day. This was combined with the Monday off to study and a Friday "exam make-up" day which was very rarely needed or used, so the school district provided no instruction (and no meal support for students in poverty) during 5 entire school days every semester (10 days/year) and wastefully ran the empty buses on their normal schedule even though students weren't allowed to be on the campus at the times the buses arrived and departed.

John Yaroch
Tue, 06/20/2017 - 11:30am

I find it curious there was no mention of reducing the length of the several long Breaks Schools take during the school year, such as Christmas and Spring Break, in addition to other extended holidays. By reducing the length of those interruptions in the education process, perhaps both sides in this issue can benefit.

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 8:01pm

Christmas and Spring break are also vacation destination time off periods for many people (but usually not to Michigan locations). If you cut those out in favor of starting after Labor Day I don't think it would go over well for a lot of people.

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 11:48am

How many people who can afford to stay overnight at the Grand Hotel or anywhere at summer rates on Mackinac Island have their children in public schools?

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 8:46am

I wondered the same thing

Dorothy K
Tue, 06/20/2017 - 12:04pm

What comes first? Funding our public schools instead of charters. Not attacking their teachers and cutting teacher pay and benefits. Apparently talent costs money unless it is a teacher. If you're so much in favor of leaving the decisions to the locals, why don't you leave it to the educators to develop curriculum and decide on testing? You politicians are all the same. Full of hot air and peddling corporate propaganda. You only believe in choice when you are doing the choosing. Hope you all get cut to part-time and end up in the unemployment line. Then we can get some computer program to wrongfully accuse you of fraud, make you pay it all back including huge fines, and force you to go to court to try to fix it. Final blow? We'll pay bigot Schuette to fight you every step of the way. All you right wingers have done with your one party rule is support religious fanatics, give tax breaks to your pals, attack our schools, and work against the commons anyway you can. Take your propaganda tour else where.

Kurt Knowles
Tue, 06/20/2017 - 12:46pm

I want everyone to think back to when you were in school. The days after Memorial Day and before Labor Day were a complete waste of time. And having partial weeks with Friday and/or Monday off does not help. Everything is forgotten over the long weekend. The only real solution is Year round school with a few 3 or 4 week vacations throughout the year but until we air condition every school we can't do that either.

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 2:26pm

If a business is in trouble for missing a week of parents with kids in August maybe it is not the lack of tourists but a poor business model they are using, its funny we didn't hear about lots of tourist business going under when they didn't have the labor day law but now its a potential crisis.

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 12:25am

Here in Maryland we are going from August school to after Labor Day weekend. Apparently the grass IS greener over the septic tank.

Barbara S
Wed, 06/21/2017 - 1:40am

Having worked with the schools for 15 years, I think many of these comments are vid! However around the world most schools are year round! There are several breaks but most a couple weeks ( see Europe, Japan?) we need more time in school not less! Furthur to those who raise funding issues, what better in eat ent can our state make than in students , teachers and yes even aur conditioning! As several thoughtful michigan leaders state the future is determined by increasing all levels if our education system pre school through grad school! Furthur the hours and schedules must move from the a agrarian founding to one that reflects current families work lives!

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 12:00pm

Go back to school and learn to spell. You did not pay attention!

Matthew Korolden
Thu, 06/22/2017 - 11:43am

"Making matters more urgent are studies showing Michigan students sinking to the bottom rung of states nationally in K-12 academic performance."

Expanded school "choice" and plummeting student results. Coincidence?

The MI GOP, bought and paid for by the DeVos machine, has routinely put ideology and profits ahead of children in this state.

Jack Matthias
Sat, 06/24/2017 - 12:29pm

I am a school board member that owns a golf and elk viewing resort. Forcing a later start means we get out later in June. I question if there is really much of a net gain. Mid June and late August are both nice times to vacation. I do support a compromise that would have no classes on the Friday before Labor Day. When kids are doing dual enrollment with our local community college - they do start before Labor Day and it would be better to have the calendars align.

Sun, 06/25/2017 - 8:35am

Tourism should absolutely not be the driver of the educational priorities of the state of Michigan. If our state wants an educated and productive citizenry then we should make that our priority. We should put our children, not economic gain for business owners, first. What is especially critical in Michigan are the children who live in poor communities and low performing school districts. These children rely on schools for education, meals and stability, their schools should be open year round. In Detroit, for example, many families can't participate in the tourism of our state because they struggle to pay for their primary housing costs. How can our state not consider their inability to pay for a hotel room in Saugatauk, Mackinac or Charlevoix, many areas where our Pure Michigan campaign targets. I would add that given the number of failing schools in Detroit, this district should be given an exemption, not a mere waiver, just based on circumstances and performance alone. If we want our state to achieve its goals of becoming a top performer in the US and internationally, we must remain vigilant to allow our superintendents and educators who must achieve these goals combat the conditions they face with more instructional time. I would argue that the idea of Tues through Thursday is not enough. Give the districts the ability to make this decision. We have to get serious about education in Michigan and make it a priority. Our kids deserve adults who will champion their futures!

Sun, 06/25/2017 - 11:37am

Better to ask, which comes first, bears or bees. About a third of our food is bee pollinated. Beekeepers lose bees to insecticides, mites, and colonies just leaving. Now, the bear population is increasing and destroying more hives. Which would you rather have, bears or bee pollinated food?

Fri, 07/21/2017 - 8:52pm

So, we all know what's best for kids! They need year round school... six weeks off during the summer (kids need a break to be kids!) with week breaks spread throughout the year. Tourism, farming, whatever, shouldn't have anything to do with the school year... only what's best for kids!