Sacrifice for good

April 29, 2013 

“Sometimes, for the greater good, sacrifices must be made.”

The author of this quote is unknown, but politics has often demanded such sacrifice for a greater good in our society.

Our state [South Carolina] is blessed with magnificent mountains, fabulous foothills and beautiful beaches, bringing folks from across the country to vacation. Tourism is one of the major contributors to the state’s economy, job market and tax base.

Six years ago, the Legislature was confronted with such a question of sacrifice for the greater good. To meet academic achievement demands – finish exams before Christmas, maximize teaching time before testing – local school boards were starting school in early August.

In 2002, the state’s tourism industry issued the Morse Report, which blamed increasingly early school start dates for declines in tourism, especially in the “lost month” of August. This report argued that earlier start dates were responsible for declining August hotel occupancy from 1997-2002, and that there was no increase in May occupancy rates to offset the lost revenue.

When it was pointed out that the summer has only so many months – and that August gains would be offset by losses at Memorial Day and in May – the tourism industry responded: “Decreased August tourist activity as schools start earlier, are not off-set by increases in tourist activity in other summer months.” (Morse Report, 2002)

Based on the Morse Report projections, the state Legislature asked school districts to sacrifice, for the greater good. In 2007, the Legislature passed the Uniform Start Date law forbidding schools from starting before the third Monday in August. While local school board members disagreed, they realized the tourism industry provides jobs and the tax revenue needed to fund its schools.

Educators, too, realized, that – for the greater good – they must make sacrifices, such “not finishing exams before Christmas break,” “wasted review two weeks in January,” and “decreased teaching time before high-stakes testing.”

Six years later, the Olde English Consortium, a nonprofit organization in Chester, decided to study the original Morse Report predictions to see if “starting school later” increased the state’s tourism, as promised.

Using the same methodology from the original Morse Report, the consortium compared May and August before and after the USD. But, since the country entered a recession in 2008, the OEC study also compared S.C. May and August tourism data before and after USD with the national average “teasing out” the natural decline due to the recession.

This 2013 OEC report concludes there was no substantive effect on state tourism numbers, as a result of USD legislation. The Morse Report argued that earlier start dates were responsible for declining August hotel occupancy rates, and that there was no increase in May occupancy rates to offset the lost revenue.

If this claim was true, the OEC believed it should have seen August occupancy rates increase since 2007 without an offsetting decline in May. In five years since the introduction of the Uniform Start Date, the data presented by tourism lobbyists has proven their projection did not bear out.

The August tourism boom predicted by the Morse Report has not taken shape. The occupancy data suggests that little correlation exists between school start dates and hotel occupancy in the summer, and is a net negative. We believe that the start dates of schools have no bearing on the tourism industry and that school boards should make such decisions representing their community.

The OEC report also found that the USD negatively impacts occupancy in May more than it improves rates in August, creating a net drag on tourism. Before USD, May occupancy rates in South Carolina lagged about 1.1 percent behind national figures. Since the USD, that gap has more than doubled to 2.62 percent.

It is time for all of us to begin thinking about ways in which we might be able to “sacrifice, for the greater good.” Not only is this idea noble, it can help us accomplish great things.

Once a sacrifice is made, it would be malpractice for our state Legislature to continue such a legally mandated sacrifice, while not examining the evidence. In this case, we are continuing to sacrifice not only student academic achievement, but local residents’ rights to decide when to start school. And now there is new evidence showing this sacrifice is for nothing.

Recently, Reps. Tommy Pope, Dennis Moss, Raye Felder, Ralph Norman, Deborah Long, Eddie Tallon, Derham Cole, Rita Allison, Greg Delleney and Mandy Powers Norrell introduced a bill (H.3648) that would return this decision to locally elected officials.

“The government is best which is closest to the people.” These words from Thomas Jefferson remind us that, unless there is proof of a greater good, we don’t need Columbia and Washington, D.C., making decisions about local communities and our community’s children.

Chairmen of the Clover, York, Fairfield, Fort Mill, Lancaster and Newberry school boards: Mack McCarter, Clover; Shirley Harris, York; Beth Reid, Fairfield; Patrick White, Fort Mill; Bobby Parker, Lancaster; and Jody Hamm, Newberry.

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