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How the tourism industry dictates when kids in 14 states go back to school

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Whether August is a month for kids to buy notebooks and paper, or to keep spending hours at the swimming pool, depends a lot on where you live. It also depends on how much sway the tourism industry has in your state.

Most states let districts set their own start date for the school year. But 14 states have start date laws, many of which ensure students stay out of school for much of August:

school start date map

Those laws are strongly supported by state tourism industries, who want kids out of school and their families traveling as late as possible in September. The best-known example is in Virginia, where the law requiring schools to start after Labor Day is known as the King's Dominion Law, named after an amusement park between Richmond and Washington DC.

But that's just the most overt example. State tourism organizations successfully lobbied for similar laws in Minnesota and Michigan. Wisconsin's Sept. 1 start date is a key issue for the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin. In Iowa, which has a start date law but hands out waivers frequently so that districts can start earlier, the CEO of the Iowa State Fair petitioned the state to better enforce the law.

A study sponsored by the University of Minnesota Tourism Center found that families were more likely to take summer trips in states where schools started after Labor Day than were similar families in states where schools started earlier.

Pennsylvania's travel and tourism lobby lists requiring schools to start after Labor Day as a key advocacy issue. A bill to do that was introduced in 2013, and referred to the legislature's committee on tourism — not the committee education.

What about the educational impact? States set their own end-of-year testing dates. But students who take Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes take national tests at the end of the school year. Later start dates could put students at a disadvantage.

Students in Alabama, where the earliest school district to return went back Aug. 5, have nearly a month longer than students in Virginia to master the material. Still, Virginia students hold their own; the state has the third-highest proportion of students in the nation to pass an AP test during high school.

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