California School Start Time Bill Becomes Law

High school will begin no earlier than 8:30 AM.

Posted Oct 27, 2019

Pixaby Free Images
Source: Pixaby Free Images

The Start School Later movement attained a major victory when California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law California Bill 328 that requires high schools to begin classes no earlier than 8:30 AM and middle schools 8:00 AM.  I have written about two previous unsuccessful attempts to enact this legislation – once in 2017 when the bill did not make its way out of the legislature, and in 2018 when then Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill.  The law exempts rural districts, still allows for before school classes (so-called “zero period”), and will not go into effect until 2022.  California schools will thus have 3 years to make the necessary adjustments to comply with the law. 

As with any major policy change at the local, state, or federal level, there are challenges to get everyone on board to support change.  The California Association of School Boards opposed the legislation, saying that local school districts should be able to set school schedules that work best for them rather than relinquish that authority to state law.  As we all know, tension between local and distant (i.e. state or federal) government control has a long history that cuts a broad swath through the heart of U.S. society. It is even a controversy that plays out on a global stage with Brexit being only one of the more current ones.

I count myself as a proponent of later start times for schools, and a victory lap is deserved for those who have lobbied for years to see changes that the law will bring to California.  While successes have been achieved in many local school districts, this state law has already heartened those who will now lobby for the change in other states.  When Arne Duncan, Education Secretary in the Obama administration, expressed support for later start times, there was even some indication that the U.S. Department of Education might set some national policy or at least encourage state and local school adminstrations.

Two persons among the many who have worked very long and hard for later start times deserve special mention and credit for their work:  Judith Owens, MD, and Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D., Executive Director and co-founder of the Start School Later organization, which has grown steadily in size and influence under her direction.    

But as with any campaign, after a victory celebration, more work remains to be done.  The California law goes into effect in 2022, and between now and then, problems with implementation will no doubt become more obvious and receive statewide and national attention.  Many concerns that are already being raised in California are those that have been expressed in discussions that have been held at the local level in school districts across the country.  While agreeing that teens need more sleep, many argue that starting school later will not guarantee that that they will.  Others have complained that starting later and ending later will affect athletic practices and games, after school work for teens, and child care for younger children by older siblings.  A big obstacle in many districts is the tiered bus schedules that have usually picked up older students first in the morning and returned later to pick up younger students.  School districts that must run two bus routes have primarily considered two options: 1) “flip” the schedule such that elementary students are picked up very early; or 2) “shift” the schedule so that both elementary and secondary students are picked up later than before.  Parents of elementary students have expressed concern and opposition to some of the early start times proposed.

For example, if elementary schools in some districts now will start at 7:30 AM, bus pick-up times may be as early as 6:30 AM.  Of course that means that many children must wake up before 6:00 AM. And to get sufficient sleep, they must go to bed very early.  A point that has been made is that younger children typically need more sleep than older ones, and that flipping the schedule just shifts the burden caused by early starts to young children.  Much research, including studies done in our lab, show that sleep insufficiency early on is associated with academic and behavioral problems up to three years later. A point less often made is whether the changes will disproportionately affect children from lower-income families.  Some parents who are unhappy with changes for a variety of reasons, will transfer their children to private schools, or to homeschooling where schedules can be set to fit individual needs and preferences. Families with lower incomes typically will not have those options.  Further, elementary students getting out of school earlier may increase the economic burden of after-school child care for parents who have long working hours.

There is ample research showing that post-pubertal adolescents have difficulty falling asleep early due to developmental changes in sleep biology, and that research has provided the primary scientific rationale for pressing schools to start later.  The research showing that the adolescents will actually sleep more is less robust, mainly because there has been insufficient time to see those effects. Still less research is available to see if getting more sleep will lead to more positive outcomes such as better school achievement, fewer tardies and absences, fewer discipline referrals, and better emotional health. Again, more time is needed to see if the changes in start times have the expected benefits.  There will be many anecdotal and subjective reports on whether the changes “work” or not and to what degree, and those kinds of reports will be weighed along with empirical research. 

Many Americans are skeptical of school reforms, whatever they may be, since so many reforms are judged to have been unsuccessful.  I have seen skepticism expressed in letters to editors of California newspapers since the bill was signed.  In the 1960’s I was a graduate student working with Project Head Start and was very excited about early research showing its positive effects on children from low income families.  Subsequently, enthusiasm was dampened when the initial gains in achievement dissipated within three years.  American schools are still challenged by an achievement “gap” that has been persistent after many different efforts to reduce it over decades.  But as I said in previous posts, we are in the midst of a large national experiment to see if starting school later will bring the benefits that many promise.  Time will tell, as it almost always does.