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In this August 2014 file photo, a sign in Ocean City calls for the start of school to be pushed past Labor Day. (File The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Economists skeptical on changing start of school

The economic effects of starting school after Labor Day may be a matter of debate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, according to two Maryland economists.

Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, who is spearheading an effort to change the start of school in Maryland, said a post-Labor-day start would result in more than $74 million in direct economic impact in Maryland and $8 million in additional state tax revenue.

“It’s common sense and it doesn’t cost a cent of the taxpayers’ money,” Franchot said. “All it does is generate profit, generate economic activity and generate good memories for our children and our families.”

Thomas Firey, a senior fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute, said there’s nothing wrong with making the change, but he said the impact may ultimately be difficult to track.

“It’s like all those studies that are done on the economic impact of stadiums or casinos,” Firey said. “We can never seem to find that impact after it gets built. It never seems to work out the way they said it would before it was built.”

“It’s very easy to get a study on almost anything saying there will be millions of dollars in impact,” said Firey. “By the same token, McDonald’s could easily come up with a study that shows that putting one less ketchup packet in a Happy Meal would have millions of dollars of impact on the bottom line. When it comes down to brass tacks, it’s probably only a half a cent cut to some people. Would they even notice?”

Firey and Dariaus Irani, chief economist for Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute, both expressed doubt that the changes would actually result in families taking additional vacations.

“I think a lot of people will simply look at changing the times they decide to go on vacation,” Irani said.

Firey called it “spread,” an extension of the amount of time available for a family to make the planned summer getaway.

For Franchot, the economic impact of extending summer a few days are worth the effort.

Franchot, who has been advocating for the change, was part of a task force appointed by Gov. Martin J. O’Malley to look at the issue. Earlier this year, that panel, in a 11-4 vote, made just one recommendation to the governor for a post-Labor Day start to the school system.

Franchot said the issue is about pushing back against a shrinking summer and finding new ways to promote economic activity for small businesses, especially those in tourist-reliant areas such as Ocean City.

“These are tough economic times, let’s be honest,” Franchot said. “These are difficult times and we need to do anything we can to help small businesses increase economic activity.

The comptroller is leading the lobbying effort and hoping to collect at least 10,000 signatures on a petition as a symbolic gesture meant to encourage the General Assembly to make a change in the 2015 session.

Making the change would cost the state nothing and the 180 days of required instruction could be met within the existing school calendar, according to the comptroller.

Franchot and the state task force point to a number of studies in other states over the last decades that indicate that starting school has a positive economic impact.

“We’re really concerned about the whittling away of summer vacation,” said G. Hale Harrison, a member of the task force and an Ocean City businessman who operates a group that includes hotels and restaurants.

Harrison said the shrinking of summer vacation has an adverse impact on businesses in the shore city.

Meanwhile, Virginia, which is frequently cited by Republicans as a model for pro-business attitude, is considering rolling back its so-called Kings Dominion law and starting schools before Labor Day. One of the biggest reasons behind the proposed change is a desire to reduce the number of waivers given to schools systems because of weather-related closings.

The amount of the impact assumed in Franchot’s numbers is based on adding an average of more than 8 days to the summer calendar. The vast majority of school systems in Maryland — roughly 79 percent — start classes between Aug. 25-27.

Four school districts — Allegany, Calvert, St. Mary’s and Washington — start school between Aug. 19 and 21.

Only Worcester County, home to Ocean City, starts after Labor Day this year.

Irani, the Towson University’s economist, said the changes could result in a push-pull effect in Maryland, where schools start later but end later in June or result in sacrificing days where schools are typically closed such as the Monday after Easter.

“You’re gaining on the back end (of vacation) but you’re losing time on the front end,” Irani said. “When you change things there will always be a cohort of people who say it cuts into their plans.”

Still, neither economist said making the change was likely to cause any real harm to the state.

“It’s a novel little idea that might be worth the experiment,” Firey said.