- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Summer foot traffic is what keeps Iowa’s Adventureland, with its famed wooden roller coaster and sprawling water park, in business. That is, until mid-August.

As the season wears on, rides aren’t filled, concession sales lag and fewer vacationing families roam the midway. Molly Vincent, whose father opened the park 40 years ago, blames the drop in visitors - nearly 60 percent in one week - on school districts starting their calendars ever earlier.

“It is a big deal to our business,” said Vincent, now a spokeswoman for the park in Altoona, outside of Des Moines.

Business owners in many states are expressing growing concern over early school start dates and their effect on tourism revenue during critical summer months, adding to tensions over whether state or local leaders should decide when classes start. Lawmakers in at least half a dozen states currently are considering measures on opposite sides of the debate.

School districts say the flexibility to start earlier in August helps them better prepare students for standardized testing, Advanced Placement courses and end-of-semester exams.

“It’s all of those things together that blend to make the calendar important and that earlier start date important to schools,” said David Wilkerson, superintendent of Waukee Community School District in central Iowa, which had been set to start classes on Aug. 13 this year until the issue reached lawmakers.

Iowa education officials in December stopped issuing automatic waivers that for years had allowed school districts to bypass a state-mandated start date closer to Sept. 1. The governor had complained the automated process violated state law, which requires school districts to explain why they need the waivers, and hurt tourism - including the beloved Iowa State Fair.

Now, different bills in the Iowa Legislature aim to either return local control to districts or find a compromise date that the tourism industry can support.

“The schools are saying, ‘Well, we need 100 percent local control,’” said Tina Bruno, executive director of the Coalition for a Traditional School Year, a group of mostly parents following legislation around the country. “Each school district’s not its own little world. They have to interact with the communities around them.”

Bruno is in San Antonio, Texas, where she helped advocate for a law passed in 2006 that requires districts to start school after the fourth Monday in August. Texas lawmakers this session are now trying to return more flexibility to districts.

In Clarksville, Tennessee, Carol Duffin has for years urged lawmakers to approve a law that would move the school start date toward the end of August, and she is considering another legislative push this year.

“We realize the benefits of starting school later as opposed to having our kids start when it’s 100 degrees,” said the mother of three.

At least 30 states currently let school districts determine their calendars without restriction, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan organization that tracks education policy. Most states require a certain number of instructional days or hours per school year, but just a few have stipulations like no classes before a certain Monday in August or no start date before Labor Day.

New proposals are being considered in states including Arizona, North Carolina and Maryland - where the state’s comptroller led a public petition to garner support for a later school start date and released a report estimating a later school calendar would bring in millions of dollars in revenue by allowing the vacation season to go deeper into August.

In Iowa, lawmakers appear at odds. State senators have pushed forward with a bill that offers local control, while some House members are backing a governor-supported bill that would start classes around Aug. 23.

“This isn’t anti-tourism. This is, ‘Who’s going to have the voice in the decision-making process?’” Democratic Sen. Tod Bowman, an Iowa high school teacher, asked during a recent legislative hearing. “Our current law is broken.”

Katelyn Baity, a 16-year-old high school junior in Hillsborough, North Carolina, supports a proposal in her state that also would favor more school district control. Baity is frustrated her high school schedule doesn’t better align with classes she’s already taking at a local community college - something she thinks would occur if her district had more control over start dates.

“I hope there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I don’t know if this will be the year or it’s somewhere further down the future after I graduate.”

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Follow Barbara Rodriguez on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bcrodriguez

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