Later school start times in California gain steam in Legislature

Students can sleep in thanks to later start times at Davis middle schools

Davis eighth-grader Susannah Costello, 14, explains why she prefers the later start time at Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School.
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Davis eighth-grader Susannah Costello, 14, explains why she prefers the later start time at Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School.

School boards and teachers unions successfully shot down a legislative proposal last year that would delay start times until 8:30 a.m. at middle and high schools in California.

Now the bill is back, with a better shot at becoming law.

Sen. Anthony Portantino, who introduced the bill, cites public research that says later school start times improve pupil health. He has several studies on his side, and his staff put together a 218-page book on the policy last year to prove it.

The Democrat from La Cañada Flintridge cites a 2014 recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics to start middle and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to offset sleep deprivation. The AAP linked insufficient sleep to physical and mental health problems in adolescents.

Research in the Journal of School Health, from the University of Minnesota, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other work, backs up the assertion that a later start improves student health.

“We’re having conversations about bringing it up and I’m hoping that people look at the science and put the best interest of kids first,” Portantino said. “We want healthy kids to do well and this is a three-decade peer reviewed research way that has results to back it up.”

The California Teachers Association argues that Senate Bill 328 eliminates local control and that legislators in Sacramento should not unilaterally dictate the first school bell for diverse communities all over the state.

“It should be a conversation that should be had by school district officials, parents, students and educators,” said Claudia Briggs, a CTA spokesperson. “We shouldn’t have a one-size fits all approach for all school start times based on how geographically diverse and large our state is.”

The argument — and the influential 325,000-member union delivering it — proved potent and persuasive last year. The bill died on the Assembly floor, 15 votes shy of passage, in the final days of the legislative year.

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, is a former middle and high school teacher and opposes the proposal.

He said the mandatory start would limit the ability of school districts to more freely stagger start times throughout the day. As a result, districts would have to purchase more school buses or start and release some students even later in the day.

O’Donnell’s daughter participates in an early morning surfing class at her high school that begins at 6:30 a.m., the optimum time to hit the waves, and he said the bill would end that option. He said similar barriers could exist for students who participate in Future Farmers of America.

“Maybe we should just have a mandatory bedtime bill because that’s the real issue here,” O’Donnell said. “If you’re worried about kids not getting enough sleep, maybe they should go to bed earlier. “

Portantino took on a new title this year as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee, a clearinghouse for all bills that allocate money. Some believe the powerful post may improve his chances of passing SB 328 in the Assembly this year. Lawmakers in both houses must get a stamp of approval on monetary bills from his committee every year.

“I think that’s a reality,” O’Donnell said. “The choice here is between solid policy or politics.”

Portantino said he hopes SB 328 will come up for a vote on the Assembly floor next week.

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