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Why the Day After Labor Day No Longer Means the First Day of School

The tradition of starting school the day after Labor Day isn't much of a tradition anymore.


The day after Labor Day is traditionally known as the first day of school. But according to a survey by Market Data Retrieval, 75 percent of American students headed back to class before this week—and that's been the trend for the last decade. So why do we still associate Labor Day with back-to-school, and should we return to a post-holiday start?

The first public school in the United States, the 376-year-old Boston Latin School, opened on April 23, 1635. But thanks to agrarian society, a spring start to the school year didn't catch on. Families needed kids to work the fields, which meant that sometimes the first day didn't happen until October. Although urban areas didn't have crops to pick, fear of diseases like cholera and scarlet fever made people afraid of staying in sweltering summer classrooms.


During the 20th century, state governments began to standardize the number of days students should be in school, as well as when schools should start. Since most campuses didn't have air conditioning, opening in August simply wasn't practical. During the 1940s and '50s, starting school just after Labor Day, when temperatures were coming down, became common.

By the 1980s, the first day of school began moving into late August as states mandated longer school years. Teachers and parents had also been complaining that a September start meant final exams fell in January, so students had to study over Christmas break. With an earlier start, finals are finished by the time vacation begins.

The advent of No Child Left Behind in 2001 caused the start of school to creep up even further, toward the first week of August. But starting earlier doesn't give students more time to learn before spring state standardized tests: Districts are not allowed to administer tests before or after a certain number of instruction days have passed.

Now, there's a growing movement to move school back to a post-Labor Day start, in large part because of economic concerns. Air conditioning schools during the hot summer months isn't cheap, so cash-strapped districts looking to save money are moving toward starting in September. Public schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma moved their start date from August 19 to the day after Labor Day, "and saved approximately $500,000 through reduced utility costs."

Tourism boards also advocate for a post-Labor Day start, because starting school on August 8 (as was the case in Memphis, Tennessee this year), means families have less time to take vacations. Hotels, resorts, county fairs, and even the local roller rink take a financial hit from August start dates. Thanks to tourism boosters, states like Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota have enacted laws saying that school can't begin until after Labor Day. Michigan's tourism economy has seen a 25 percent boost since the law was passed in 2009.

Earlier start dates also mean high school sports teams begin practicing in hot August weather. Six football players and one assistant coach have already died this summer from heat-related incidents.

So will more states follow suit and move the first day of school back after Labor Day? Not necessarily. Younger generations have grown up starting school in August, so they're used to it. Advocates are also up against year-round schooling proponents. Given that most parents work full time and struggle to find and pay for child care during the summer, a year-round school schedule may sound pretty appealing.

photo via (cc) Flickr user Phil Roeder

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