August is a big month for fairs across the country, including the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. It typically draws more than a million visitors for rides, fried food, concerts, and livestock shows. - 

It’s state fair season -- the time of year for fried food on a stick and a chance for kids to take part in competitions celebrating agriculture. But fewer young people are growing up to be farmers and more is expected of them in the classroom. And that’s fueling debate between state fairs and schools over how kids should spend their summers.

Iowa State Fair Manager Gary Slater says competitions for children like 4H and FFA are at the heart of the fair tradition. But he says organizers have to pack as many as they can into the first few days.

“And we’re really devoid in that area of youth participation, youth activities and family activities in the second half of the fair,” Slater says.

That’s because most Iowa districts go back to school before Labor Day, some while the fair is still going. Sports and music practices start even earlier. Tourism industry leaders want to make it harder for schools to do that.  They say early start dates cut into attendance and revenues.

Marla Calico is the director of education at the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. She says similar debates have gone on in states like Minnesota, Georgia, and Indianawhere school start dates can make it hard for kids to take part.

A boy takes the stage for his turn at competing in the Youth Rooster Crowing Contest.

"They are agricultural fairs. That’s at the heart of their mission,” Calico says. “And to restrict this segment of the population from participating -- it’s a challenge."

But school districts say there’s so much pressure on students to perform well on tests, they need all the classroom time they can get. Veteran English teacher Deadra Stanton of Mason City, Iowa has been working with students through the summer to prep for Advanced Placement tests next May.

“Then if you don’t start ‘til the first of September, you can be three to four, sometimes even five weeks behind where other students who are taking the same tests and being evaluated against each other are,” Stanton says.

So why don’t state fairs just start earlier in the summer? Gary Slater of the Iowa State Fair says that would create conflicts with county fairs which are often in July.

“They like to have carnivals; they like to have food concessions, “ Slater says. “And there are only so many of those to go around.”

Slater says it’s not just about lost revenue; with all the teenagers back in school, it’s also harder to find ticket takers and parking attendants to work at the state fair.