School Start Time Movement Hits a Bump in the Road

California legislature bill fails.

Posted Sep 20, 2017

Pixabay Free Images CC0 Public Domain Free for commercial use  No attribution required
Source: Pixabay Free Images CC0 Public Domain Free for commercial use No attribution required

As I have discussed frequently in this blog, the movement to start high schools later has achieved considerable traction, with many school districts adopting the recommendations of professional and advocacy groups. For some time, advocates have been heartened by the willingness of some state legislators to introduce a bill in their state. The most notable of these has been SB 328, first introduced in the California legislature by Senator Anthony Portantino in February 2017. The bill would have prohibited any high school or middle school from starting before 8:30 a.m. beginning in 2020, and it had provisions for districts to request a waiver to delay from two to four years if changing the start time created an economic hardship on the district. SB 328 It passed the state Senate in May 2017 and was later passed out of both the Education and Appropriations committees. 

Many indications looked favorable for passage by the legislature in September, since Portantino’s bill had widespread support from many national groups. A report from the Rand Corporation led by Dr. Wendy Troxel, suggesting that starting school later would reap many economic benefits, received considerable national media attention in late August. The Rand press release had the eye-catching title “Shifting School Start Times Could Contribute $83 Billion to U.S. Economy Within a Decade.” A week before the vote, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Dr. Troxel promoting the passage of the bill.

But in spite of the support, when the bill was put to a vote of the full California legislature on September 14, 2017, it received 26 "yes" votes, 30 "no" votes, with 23 absent. The bill needed 41 "yes" votes for passage, so the measure failed. The bill was opposed by the California School Boards Association whose leaders argued that local school districts, not the state, should have the authority to set times as they saw appropriate for their district. Mr. Portantino was quoted as saying he regretted that the opposition used unscientific and unsupported arguments and vowed to begin the process anew in January 2018.

Advocates of later start times are surely disappointed but will continue their mission to change school policy. When researchers try to affect public policy, they are sometimes surprised at how persons in a position to affect change can be persuaded to discount large bodies of research by a few anecdotes or reasonable sounding arguments without empirical evidence. Especially in today’s polarized political climate, many policymakers and much of the public do not believe that scientists are truly nonbiased in applying their findings to public policy. The most glaring and consequential example is how climate change researchers have had their work successfully challenged by nonspecialists who are largely ignorant of scientific method. In the matter of school start times, we researchers of children’s sleep and its consequences know a lot about how to conduct empirical studies and we know a lot about how to evaluate a body of research comprised of multiple studies. But we have a lot to learn about how to use that knowledge to convince others to see implications of our work the same way we do.