RICHMOND – In the end, tourism industry opposition to a bill to let school systems open before Labor Day won out.
The Senate Education and Health Committee by a 9-6 vote Thursday dismissed Virginia Beach Republican Del. Bob Tata’s HB 1063 to allow local school boards to set the school calendar start date.
The committee previously defeated an identical Senate bill.
And in another vote, that panel rejected legislation to permit home schooled students to try out for public high school athletics.
Tata’s school calendar bill would have stricken from Virginia law the rule that the school year starts after Labor Day unless a division gets a state waiver, which 77 of the state’s 132 school systems have.
The perennial pre-Labor Day effort cleared the House of Delegates this year with a push from Gov. Bob McDonnell, but still failed in the face of strong opposition from tourism interests who said the early start date would undercut their businesses.
Already facing a $37 million budget shortfall, Virginia Beach City Councilwoman Rosemary Wilson said the city school system would face further financial harm from tourism revenue lost due to an earlier start date.
“We cannot take those revenues away from our schools,” she said, adding passage of Tata’s bill would “be like breaking the wing of that golden goose we desperately need.”
Another local who spoke in opposition to the bill was Verne Burlage, president of the Virginia Beach Hotel-Motel Association.
He said starting the school year in August would hinder tourism during a peak period in the summer vacation season.
Testimony in support of the bill came from various education officials, including Virginia Beach schools superintendent James Merrill.
He said starting schools later puts students at a competitive disadvantage to those in places where classes start earlier.
After Tata’s bill went down, the committee shifted its attention to another controversial education proposal — Del. Rob Bell’ s HB 947 to let home schooled students join public high school sports teams.
The so-called Tim Tebow bill, named for the former Florida home schooler who went on to professional football fame, would simply give kids “chance to try out,” not impose any quotas or set aside roster spots, said Bell, R-Albemarle County.
Standing with him were several home school proponents, including a procession of youngsters who appealed to the committee to advance the bill.
Supporters of the bill say it levels the playing field for kids whose parents choose an alternative educational environment but still pay taxes toward public schools.
Opposing them was the Virginia High School League, which argues the bill would create a double-standard for student athletes, and other education advocates.
Criticism of the measure came from Democrats like Sen. Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County, who suggested it would start a domino effect of future legislation to give home schooled students access to other public school facilities like science laboratories.
Saslaw and other lawmakers said parents of home schooled students made a choice not to send their children to public schools.
They said those choices have consequences, namely non-participation in public high school athletics.
And Newport News Sen. John Miller said paying taxes doesn’t grant people an automatic right to play public school sports any more than “a citizen who pays taxes, and doesn’t have school age children, has a right to use school facilities.”
Bell’s bill was narrowly defeated on an 8-7 vote; opposition from Chesapeake Republican Sen. Harry Blevins, a former high school principal, was critical to its demise.
-Julian Walker, The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot