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For generations Labor Day has been thought of as the unofficial end of summer, primarily because kids went back to school a day or two after the hot-dog-filled holiday weekend. Those days, sadly, are long gone in Tennessee. I’m not sure why. Maybe the state’s school boards have a wager on who can be the first county to begin school in July.

Here in Knoxville, my daughter’s first day of first grade was Aug. 10, and I thought that was a little absurd. Aug. 10? I mean, come on! My Fourth of July second-degree fireworks burns have barely healed. I still haven’t vacuumed out the beach sand in our minivan. Aug. 10 is too early to be starting school. It’s as though the Knox County school board wants my daughter to start fourth grade before she’s done with third grade.

But the Knox County school board is playing catch-up with the folks in Crossville. Cumberland County is knocking on July’s door — HARD. The first day of school was Aug. 3? Aug. 3? Are you kidding me? That’s unbelievable. Has anyone peeked at the calendar for the 2007-’08 academic year? We may have a winner of that bet. Pay up, Knox County, you orange-clad slackers!

For Tennessee (in general) and in Cumberland County (quite specifically), Labor Day has been relegated to little more than an afterthought — it’s a month after the beginning of school. In the Volunteer State, Labor Day has been totally sucked dry of its summer cachet. It might as well be freakin’ Columbus Day. It’s just another day to eat too much, drink too much and get a good deal on a mattress.

It turns out I’m not the only one who thinks starting school so early is, at best, a questionable idea. A grassroots organization called Save Tennessee Summers describes itself as a “statewide coalition of parents, teachers and community members disappointed with the ever-earlier start to the school year.”

Of course, the proponents of an early school year will have their reasons, but the folks at Save Tennessee Summers have some pretty good rebuttals of their own. My reaction to starting school in early August is admittedly visceral. It feels wrong — a crime against the natural order, if you will. But on its Web site, savetennesseesummers.org, the group goes far beyond the gut reaction and intelligently and thoughtfully addresses concerns and concepts I had never considered. All I knew was that early August school was icky.

Here’s a reason: It costs a lot of money to keep schools air conditioned during August, which — as all of our sweat-soaked piles of laundry prove — can be a horrifically hot time of the year. Wasted electricity? Good point!

However, one reason that early-school proponents point to is that their calendar allows kids to wrap up the fall semester and finish final exams before the Christmas holiday break. It’s another good point, but this time in the opposite direction. (Fair and balanced: That’s me.) Who wants to study for a chemistry final during Christmas break? The thing is this: Who wants to ever study for a chemistry final? There really isn’t a good time for that sort of thing. Incidentally, the states that typically start school after Labor Day are states that rank much higher in education than Tennessee. Somehow those kids in Michigan are able to clear away the wrapping paper and gravy stains and still find time to bone up on oxidation reactions over the holiday break. Pick your poison: Christmas studying or school on Aug. 3.

Legislators are listening. According to information from the National School Board Association, similar Save Our Summer-type groups in Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin have convinced legislators to pass laws in recent years prohibiting early start dates.

“Educational excellence is expected from our Tennessee schools,” according to the Save Tennessee Summers site. “As parents and community members, we expect nothing less. Our dedicated teachers work hard every day to provide our students with the best education possible with limited resources. School administrators work hard to meet state and federal deadlines and balance the budget. School board members volunteer countless hours to our school systems weekly. We owe it to our children to explore the benefits of a traditional school calendar, with a school start date no earlier than the day after Labor Day.”

Right on! Plus, it’s not so icky.

David Spates is a Knoxville resident and Crossville Chronicle contributor whose column is published each Tuesday. He can be reached at davespates@tds.net.