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Travel industry seeks later start of school in Pa.

| Monday, Aug. 27, 2007

HARRISBURG -- Parents seeking relief from whiny refrains of "I'm bored" and "There's nothing to do" will likely be cheering this week as most of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts begin the 2007-08 academic year.

But for tourism industry officials, pre-Labor Day school openings are nothing to cheer about. With school in session during what's considered to be the last official week of summer, they say business takes a hit because they lose teenage employees and potential visitors.

For several years, the industry has pushed for legislation to require all school districts to begin the school year after Labor Day. The debate pits business concerns against school boards' insistence on controlling the academic calendar.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Robert Godshall, R-Montgomery, was approved this year by the House's education and tourism committees but has yet to be put to a House vote.

The idea hasn't advanced far in the face of opposition by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania State Education Association -- the state's largest teachers' union -- who argue that drawing up a school calendar should be a local decision.

Gov. Ed Rendell is on their side.

"We don't believe that decision should be made at the state level but can best be made at the local level," Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said.

Nearly 90 percent of school districts start school before the holiday weekend.

Rep. Tom Tangretti, chairman of the House Tourism & Recreational Development Committee, said support for the measure among lawmakers has been building in the past year because the economic arguments for it are compelling.

A study released in September by a bipartisan legislative panel predicted that starting school after Labor Day statewide would add $378 million annually to the state's economy, including $164 million in direct travel and tourism spending. The industry generated about $27 billion in spending last year.

"I understand there's a need for local control but, by the same token, sometimes we all have to deal with things for the good of the economy," said Tangretti, D-Greensburg.

Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia are among states that require school to start after Labor Day, while Wisconsin sets Sept. 1 as the earliest start date, according to data gathered by a national parents organization, the Coalition for a Traditional School Calendar. The group supports the measure.

The early school start has proven to be a problem for Kennywood Park, which officials decided this year to close during the last week of August, community relations director Andy Quinn said.

Kennywood's parent company, which owns two other western Pennsylvania amusement parks, employs about 3,000 high school and college students. That experience provides a practical education, Quinn said.

"They're having to learn how to get along with co-workers, how to take direction," he said. "Having a summer job is not just an earning experience."

For school boards, an earlier start provides greater flexibility to make up time lost to snow days or teachers strikes to ensure they fulfill a state mandate to provide 180 days of instruction by June 30, said Tim Allwein, a lobbyist for the school boards association.

"If there's an issue with the tourism industry, they can go to the school board and advocate for a later start," Allwein said. "There are ways to do this other than to mandate it for 501 school districts."

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