Fred Abraham is an economics professor at UNI.
In 1983, the Iowa Legislature approved a law essentially requiring public schools to start classes after Labor Day. The law was done to support the profits of the state’s tourism industry. I remember at the time thinking there was some flawed reasoning in the idea.
To begin, it takes some fuzzy logic to believe the later start will bring additional tourists to Iowa from other states. It’s highly unlikely residents of other states really care much about when we start our schools. I suppose one could argue Adventureland and campgrounds might be more fun with fewer kids around, but I doubt there is much of an impact.
So, if the law is to help the tourism industry we must assume that Iowans will view the extra days provided by the late start as an opportunity to do additional travel. However, it is more likely they will simply change travel dates, not increase them. A vacation trip is usually a planned event and while it is almost always planned around kids’ vacations, the decision to travel or not is only slightly influenced by the school start date. Stated differently, the start date affects when to take a vacation, not if. For tourism businesses, starting later only affects when profits are earned, not the size.
In economics, we talk about peak load problems. That is, does a business have trouble servicing its customers when they are busiest or at their peak demand? I suspect some tourism businesses do have a peak load problem but unless it causes people to eliminate their vacation or perhaps go out of state, it will simply cause a rearranging of the trip dates.
Speaking of rearranging, unless there is a dramatic change in the number of days off students receive during the school year, starting later in the summer also must mean school ends later in the spring. Thus, the additional time off in August comes at the expense of time off in June. But maybe the tourism industries profits aren’t as easily made in June as in August.
It’s clear school districts don’t like the late start date. The law allows schools to apply for waivers and 341 of the state’s 348 school districts applied and received permission to start early. While I don’t always agree with decisions made by educators, obviously there is a lot of agreement on the benefit of starting early.
The specious reasoning of the tourism people aside, what is most disturbing about the law is the crass favoritism displayed. It’s hard to imagine a clearer case of special interest legislation. While the tourism industry’s lobbying groups have many reasons why the law is good for the state of Iowa, the reality is that they want the law enforced for their own benefit. Think of it: believing (questionably as I have illustrated) that a later start would enhance tourism industry profits, the legislature actually passed a law designed to help one specific industry.
Let’s suppose just for discussion, the late start did aid the tourism industry. Iowa consumers have a set amount of money they can spend on entertainment. The more that is spent on travel, the less that can be spent on other things. Fewer movies, fewer bowling outings, less golf opportunities, and so much more. Unfortunately, this may be a zero-sum game. One group of Iowans benefits at the expense of other Iowans. How can we possibly justify this?
Our pro-business governor wants to make it harder for schools to get waivers from the law. He would serve Iowa far better if he would push for repeal of a law designed to blatantly benefit a particular group. While Iowa schools are not quite where we want them, the state has a long history of high quality education. This has been done by allowing local control of schools. That control should not be sacrificed for the benefit of a special interest group.