A decades-long battle over school calendars is now playing out in the courts.

On one side are public schools. According to WRAL, “About 27 of the state’s 115 school systems are expected to start their upcoming school year before” the August 26 start date laid out under the state’s General Statutes.

Education versus vacation

These schools would like to start the year earlier for three reasons.

First, an earlier start date allows schools to complete an entire semester of instruction and the related final exams before Christmas break. Without earlier start times, exams for fall semester courses must be administered in January, after students might have forgotten course content.

Second, an earlier start date allows high school calendars to align with the calendars at local community colleges. Many high school students want to take advantage of dual enrollment opportunities that enable them to earn college credit while still making progress toward their high school diploma.

Third, school calendar flexibility allows school districts to combat summer learning loss. Summer learning loss impacts all children. And for children from historically marginalized communities with less access to high-quality summer enrichment programs and activities, the impacts are greater.

On the other side is the state’s tourism industry. Despite raking in record levels of revenue, they claim that an earlier school start date will harm their revenue from tourists who, by definition, don’t reside in the district. Their arguments fail to note that any shift in school calendars only impacts the timing of families’ vacations, not the overall amount they spend. Regardless, industry interests would rather that students miss out on dual enrollment opportunities and take final exams weeks after their last class than face the minuscule risk that a change in school calendars could impact their soaring revenues.

The North Carolina General Assembly’s Role

Carteret County is the latest school board forced to defend their school calendar in the courts. Unfortunately, these cases—and all of the reporting around school calendar issues—have ignored the fact that the North Carolina General Assembly is refusing to follow the law set forth by the North Carolina Supreme Court. The courts have already decided that schools should have calendar flexibility.

At issue is the General Assembly’s failure to comply with the state’s long-running Leandro court case. At the center of the case is the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan (the Leandro Plan). The Leandro Plan is a detailed, multi-year plan to ensure that our public schools are constitutionally compliant by the 2027-2028 school year. It includes a detailed spending plan and many important policy changes.

Leandro Plan Timeline

The Leandro Plan orders the state to “Adopt the necessary policies to allow school calendar flexibility to ensure that local schools can align with community college and university schedules” by the end of 2022. Unfortunately, the General Assembly has failed to comply with this active court order and amend the state law on school start dates.

Below is the relevant timeline of events:

  • November 10, 2021, the Superior Court orders the state to fully implement the Leandro Plan, including $1.7 billion to fund years one and two. This order includes the language requiring the state to grant districts calendar flexibility.
  • November 18, 2021, the Governor signs a new budget that contains some, but not all, elements of the Leandro Plan.
  • November 30, 2021, the Court of Appeals issues an order halting the transfer of the $1.7 billion, pending new calculations of what the state owes following the passage of the new budget. This order only halted the transfer of money. Other non-monetary aspects of the Superior Court’s November 10 order remain in effect, including the language on calendar flexibility.
  • April 26, 2022, the Superior Court calculates that the state still owes $785 million, but the transfer of funds remains on hold pending a Supreme Court hearing.
  • November 4, 2022, the Supreme Court orders the full funding and implementation of the Leandro Plan. They affirmatively reinstate the language in the November 11, 2021, Superior Court order and repeal the language of the November 30, 2021, order. However, the transfer of money remains on hold because another budget has passed, affecting the state’s ongoing shortfall.
  • March 3, 2023, the Supreme Court—with a different partisan makeup following the November 2022 elections—reinstates the Court of Appeals’ November 30, 2021 “writ of prohibition.” This action halts the transfer of funds until the new Supreme Court can rehear the recently settled case. Again, the reinstated 2021 order does not absolve the General Assembly of implementing non-monetary policies, such as granting schools calendar flexibility.

Responsibility under the North Carolina Constitution

The net result is that the General Assembly remains under a court order to provide school districts with calendar flexibility.

There’s a strong argument that school districts don’t need to wait for the General Assembly to do the right thing. The November 11, 2021, order reinstated by the November 4, 2022, Supreme Court ruling states that “any and all other State actors and their officers, agents, servants, and employees are authorized and directed to do what is necessary to fully effectuate years 2 and 3 of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan.”

What’s less debatable is the General Assembly’s responsibility to North Carolina’s students. Even before there was a Leandro Plan, there was no excuse for prioritizing the interests of business owners ahead of public school students. Now, under a still-active court order to grant schools calendar flexibility, legislative leaders need to follow the law and put the needs of their constituents above the preferences of industry leaders.