Why do Virginia schoolchildren start later than kids in Maryland and D.C.? Kings Dominion amusement park.
Students from across Virginia will have one more weekend to enjoy the Berserker and the Dominator, despite the fact that children in D.C. and Maryland are already sitting through math class.
That's because of the Kings Dominion Law. It's a 1986 law passed at the behest of the amusement park that prohibits school divisions from opening before Labor Day unless they qualify for a waiver.
"In this case it would seem business interests are getting preferential treatment because it's probably good for the state's economy," says Geoff Skelley, analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "If they go to school the requisite number of days, the timing may matter less to legislators, especially if the schedule might also benefit a major business venture."
In the last 20 years, Kings Dominion has contributed about half a million dollars to candidates, parties and committees. That includes $9,500 to Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw, $6,150 to Senate Education Committee Chairman Stephen Martin (R-11) and $5,500 to former Del. Phil Hamilton (R-93), who is now serving a federal prison sentence for bribery and extortion. The Doswell-based amusement park has also given $61,500 to the Democratic Commonwealth Victory Fund and $61,000 to the Virginia Joint Republican Caucus.
"The lobbying efforts on the part of the tourism industry are quite strong, and we've never had adequate votes in order to change the law," says Ben Kiser, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. "The entities that are lobbying for this one week before Labor Day, they are open well into the school year and do not close until late fall."
But leaders in the tourism industry say hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. The Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association estimates that Labor Day weekend generates $369 million in economic activity for Virginia, money they say would be lost if school administrators started classes whenever they wanted. Earlier this year, the association released a study it commissioned showing no relationship between test scores and starting classes before Labor Day.
"The preponderance of the evidence suggests that, as a group, divisions that begin school prior to Labor Day, as compared to those beginning after Labor Day, show approximately equal academic performance as measured by SOL tests across the time, subject area and grade level," wrote James McMillian, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Critics say the tourism industry has an undue influence in Virginia, where campaign contributions and gifts are commonplace. Before Anheuser-Busch sold Busch Gardens in 2009, the company gave almost $1 million in political contributions. Since 2001, Kings Dominion has given about $30,000 in free tickets to lawmakers. That includes $3,000 in tickets to former Del. Jay O'Brien (R-40), $2,300 in tickets to Del. Ken Plum (D-36) and $1,900 in tickets to Del. Patrick Hope (D-47).
"Obviously, it didn't affect me because I voted against their bill every single time it came up," says Del. Scott Surovell (D-44), who received $120 worth of tickets to Kings Dominion last year. "Tourism is an important part of the economy, and it matters in some areas more than others, and certain legislators are very responsive to that when it affects a lot of jobs and a lot of businesses in their economy."
Ever since the original bill was signed into law in 1986, school administrators have been trying to overturn it in Richmond. Those efforts have been largely unsuccessful, although administrators can apply for a waiver that would allow them to begin the school year whenever they wanted. But they have to qualify, which has created an interesting division between the Western half of the state and the Eastern half of the state. One half of Virginia gets enough snow to qualify for the waiver while the other half does not.
"Almost all the waiver divisions are located west of I-95," wrote McMillan. "Non-waiver divisions include a disproportionately high number of large, urban localities, though there is little relationship between size and academic outcomes."
School leaders say they will continue to fight the Kings Dominion Law, arguing that local school leaders know best what should happen in local communities. But they are up against powerful forces. Aside from contributions and gifts from the tourism industry, they have the support of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. In an email to WAMU, a spokesman for McAuliffe said the governor is trying to strike a balance.
"He supports working with school divisions to get them the resources and support they need to help students succeed," writes Brian Coy, communications director for the governor. "He is optimistic that we can improve school performance without hampering Virginia's tourism industry."
For now, leaders in the tourism industry seem to be winning the fight.
"Essentially there's no difference between the one- or two-week start date for students," says Kristen Havard, vice president at the Virginia Hospitality Travel Association. "If there is no academic benefit to the earlier start date, it really is kind of a common-sense policy strategy."