This latest column focuses on some of the key takeaways from the debate on later school start times and what California's new law means for other states considering the shift. Previous installments of The 50 States of Education Policy can be found here.
A nationwide movement to delay school start times gained fuel this month after California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill mandating later start times for most middle and high schools.
SB 328, the first legislation of its kind, requires public and charter middle schools in California to start no earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools to begin at 8:30 a.m. or later, with the exception of rural schools. Under the law, optional early classes will still be allowed.
Until recently, the later-start-time movement nationally had been a slow-burning local issue for more than two decades. “Most of the communities that have adopted this have done so voluntarily and have done it with a process that has included buy-in building within the community,” Deborah Temkin, a director for the national research organization Child Trends, said.
But with the mandate coming for the first time from a state capitol instead of the grassroots, California's top-down overhaul is expected to garner some resistance from key community stakeholders.
While health experts and educators overwhelmingly agree later start times come with a slew of scientifically proven benefits for teenagers, whether that change should be made on a district-by-district basis or on the state level has polarized communities and even educational coalitions that are usually in alignment otherwise. At the crux of the policy debate lies the issue of local versus state control.
“It was an uphill battle for many, many school districts.”
Senior Research Fellow at University of Minnesota
Stacy Simera, a spokesperson for Start School Later, said this has been a "policy priority" for advocates for a quarter of a century, but only a statistically small number of schools have made the switch. Putting in place a state policy takes the burden off individual school districts, establishes a framework for districts to follow, and frames the conversation as a public health issue rather than strictly an educational one, experts say.
But Troy Flint, a senior director of communications for the California School Boards Association, which opposed the bill, said a “one-size-fits-all mandate from Sacramento” will not suit California. “Because of the diversity in our local communities and the variety of student and family needs, the question of school start times should really be one that’s decided locally in concert with the community,” Flint said.
The legislation will have a “disproportionate impact,” according to Flint, on families with adults working in retail, the service industries, the construction trades or in agriculture because they have less schedule flexibility. SB 328 could force those families to choose between going to their jobs on time or dropping their children off at school later. Also, students who have a delayed last bell will have to make arrangements with their afterschool job employers.
For districts that have already made this shift, “It took about a year for families, workers, parents, childcare adjustments to align,” Kyla Wahlstrom, a senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota, said.
But even in some districts that independently changed start times, the transitions were volatile.
“It was an uphill battle for many, many school districts,” Wahlstrom said. “I know four superintendents across the U.S. who lost their jobs over initiating this change.”
The initial benefits of later start times in a small Minnesota district Wahlstrom studied in the mid-'90s included fewer disciplinary issues and fewer students with self-reported peer-relationship problems. Teachers reported that, in their first hour of the day, the 20% to 25% of students who were usually asleep at their desks were now awake, and 92% of parents said their kids were easier to live with.
When Minneapolis decided to delay start times to 8:30 a.m. or later soon after, Wahlstrom followed the results for five years. She found later start times were linked to a plethora of benefits including significantly less depression; less interest in using drugs, cigarettes and alcohol; increased school attendance and decreased tardiness.
Since then, pockets of districts nationwide have made the shift to later start times. As early as 2005, the National Sleep Foundation, which had been keeping track of district time changes across the U.S., said the number exceeded 500.
But the foundation has stopped counting as the shift in a few hundred districts turned into a nationwide movement that became difficult to track. Wahlstrom’s lower estimates place the number of districts between 800 and 1,000.
With California’s new law, that number is expected to skyrocket.
Looking to California
“A lot of states are going to be looking to see what happens,” Temkin said. “If California can pull this off without many negative consequences, other states will follow suit.”
And while California school districts have three years to do that (July 2022 is the deadline), its statewide viability is still uncertain.
A key part of the local implementation process, experts said, will be creating a committee including community stakeholders — from parents, teachers and students to employers, public transportation representatives, law enforcement and health agency representatives.
“A lot of states are going to be looking to see what happens.”
Director for Child Trends
Transportation costs, including potentially adding bus drivers and purchasing or contracting additional buses, will have to be taken into account as well. In communities that use the public transportation system, districts may have to negotiate route changes with the local bus or light-rail service.
Plus, many districts will have to renegotiate teacher contracts with unions to ensure staff starts at the new times.
It's unclear if district costs will go up or stay the same, experts agree. If they do rise, some leaders hope the funds will be provided by the state to help defray the extra costs, though that's not specified in the law.
“Schools [must ensure] they are not robbing Peter to pay Paul and taking money away from other important academic and social programs to fund this new mandate,” Flint said.
A national context
Lisa Lewis, a parent advocate and the writer who sparked the debate in California, said she now hopes other states follow in her home state’s footsteps. Those hopes may not be far off.
Hawaii, Minnesota, Maine and Rhode Island are considering a shift to start times. While previous efforts in those states failed, it is possible for the matter to be renewed if California's effort succeeds.
Several years ago, New Jersey directed its Department of Education to conduct a study on the issues, benefits and options for instituting a later start time in middle school and high school. It culminated in a 2017 report that said while pushing back start times would present logistical challenges, it would result in positive outcomes for “students’ health, safety, well-being, and academic performance.”
However, the study ultimately concluded that school start times should not be mandated by the New Jersey Legislature or the New Jersey Ed Department but should be determined by local school districts.
Indiana urged its Legislative Council to study the issue in 2016. Maryland required its Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to conduct a similar review in 2014, and in 2016 provided incentives for schools to push their morning bells.
In Pennsylvania, a joint commission released its findings this month on the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation for teenagers following a resolution passed last year. Local advocates are now working to pull together a stakeholder committee, which is expected to meet before the new year. They are hoping Pennsylvania will incentivize later start times to push districts that have played hot potato with the topic until now.
On the federal level, Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren from California introduced H.R.1861 to the House Committee on Education and Labor in March, though no action has been taken since.
"People don’t like change," Wahlstrom said. "You have to move people slowly to [accept] the idea that we’re going to have some bumps in the road, but the bumps aren’t going to stop the journey."
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Start School Later had advocated for later school start times for nearly a quarter of a century.