Whose Dominion?

Why do Virginia theme parks determine the state’s academic calendar?

Paramount's Kings Dominion
The roller coaster at Paramount’s Kings Dominion

Photograph by Chris Hagerman via Wikipedia.

If you live in the Commonwealth of Virginia and you’re wondering who sets the academic calendar, you need only look up, up to the soaring roller coasters and slides of Kings Dominion, Busch Gardens and Water Country USA. It seems that since 1986, a Virginia law has barred schools from opening before Labor Day because it’s bad for the amusement park industry. Some schools, responding to trends around the country, evidently wanted to open in August. The new law prohibiting such madness came to be known around the state as the “Kings Dominion law,” since it was pushed through by hotel, recreation, and resort industries who wanted families to spend the month of August on their roller coasters, and needed teenagers to work their parks until September. (Only Virginia and Michigan have laws that bar schools from opening before Labor Day.)

The law allows a school district to obtain a waiver to make up for school days lost to bad weather, if it can demonstrate that it “has been closed an average of eight days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of severe weather conditions, energy shortages, power failures, or other emergency situations.” After a statewide standardized testing program was introduced, the law was amended in 1998 to permit waivers for “experimental or innovative” programs, like year-round schools. But waivers have proven very difficult to come by. Earlier this year the city of Alexandria, Va., withdrew a request for a waiver when it became clear that it was going to be rejected by the state board of education. The issue will heat up when the General Assembly convenes again in January, partly because school districts and teachers don’t really want the school year determined solely by reference to lost slushy sales.

But the money is on the side of the hospitality industry, which claims that the commonwealth loses more money in tourism than it makes up in kids’ test scores. The Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, which represents Kings Dominion and other amusement parks, contends that shortening the summer tourism season “would forgo spending by about $274 million and decrease wages and benefits by about $104 million.” Last week the director of government affairs for the Association, Katie Hellbbush, clarified that “We’ve never seen any kind of difference in academic achievement in terms of starting before Labor Day. But studies have shown a distinct change in tourism.” When state delegate Adam Ebbin proposed legislation that would have the state actually study these claims empirically, it died in the House Rules committee. Also, Ebbin’s attempt to pass a bill that would have allowed schools with high poverty rates to be waived out of the Labor Day ban failed two years ago. As did a proposal last year to make “local school boards responsible for setting the school calendar and determining the opening of the school year.”

So much for local control of education.

Studies show that a longer school year is better for children, particularly low-income children. But this isn’t really about what kids need in order to learn. It’s not even about lost state revenues. It’s about power and influence and money. Virginia Commonwealth University notes that since 2001, Kings Dominion has given legislators and other state officials “more than $226,000 in campaign contributions. During that time, Kings Dominion also has given members of the General Assembly almost $25,000 in theme-park tickets. Anheuser-Busch, the beer brewer based in St. Louis, operates Busch Gardens and Water Country USA in Williamsburg. Since 2001, Anheuser-Busch has donated more than $1 million to state-level politicians in Virginia. The company also has given legislators almost $13,000 in tickets to Busch Gardens and Water Country USA.” That’s right, state legislators are getting free tickets for their families at state theme parks in order to preserve other families’ right to spend more money at state theme parks.

The notion that education should be driven by what’s best for commerce rather than actual learning is hardly confined to Virginia. It’s recently popped up on the presidential campaign trail, too. In recent days, Newt Gingrich suggested rolling back child labor laws so kids can clean their schools. He went one better on the Grinch-o-meter last week, claiming that “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works, so they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.” When Gingrich today announced that the dream mentoring team of himself and Donald Trump would launch a new initiative to make poor children the proud beneficiaries of an Apprentice-style program (catchphrase: “You’re TIRED!”), the trifecta was complete.

Schools in this country aren’t great. But reading and test scores won’t improve through greater access to the Windseeker or even to internships with Donald Trump. The public schools don’t exist to increase state entertainment revenues or as a potential pool of cut-rate child janitors. If we’ve learned anything about education reform in the last few years it’s that there really is no substitute for the three R’s. And no Virginia, one of them isn’t roller coasters.