After narrowly passing the state senate and assembly, Governor Jerry Brown officially vetoed the hugely controversial SB-328, commonly referred to as the California Late Start Bill, on Thursday, September 20 with the notion that the issue was one better addressed at the district level as opposed to statewide. The Senate measure would have mandated that all California middle and high schools, both public and charter, should begin the school day no earlier than 8:30 am with the exception of those in rural areas. Additionally, individual school districts would have been “encouraged” to promote the new regulations by informing community members by any means they see fit of relevant research on teenage sleep deprivation, the benefits of a later start time and how students and families can adapt to these changes. “This is a one-size-fits-all approach that is opposed by teachers and school boards,” Brown said in an official veto message. “These are the types of decisions best handled in the local community.”
The California Late Start Bill was officially introduced in February of 2017 by Senator Anthony Portantino, a Democratic representative of California’s 25th senate district. It received immediate backing from Terra Ziporyn Snider, a medical writer and co-founder of the non-profit School Start Later organization, which advocates for the pushback of school start times on the basis of research into the correlation between unhealthy teenage sleep patterns and poor academic performance. “These early hours, set in the mid-20th century largely to save money on buses, interfere with the quality, quantity, consistency, and timing of adolescent sleep and create a huge sleep debt every week of the school year,” writes Snider on the need for legislation similar to Portantino’s bill. “School communities need help recognizing that sleep and sleep-friendly school hours are critical matters of child health and safety.”
In the year and seven months before passing the senate and assembly floors by a landslide, the bill received an unexpected wave of criticism from opposition lobbyists. Many of these organizations and unions were widely influential forces in California education, most notably the California Teachers Association and the California School Boards Association. Among their top concerns were possible complications with student transportation (i.e. parents arriving to work on time, public transit schedules) as well as the belief that costly funding towards before-school supervision and activities would inevitably cut into money set aside for extracurriculars, classrooms, and other school necessities.
“Individual school boards should be able to explore whether later start times make sense for their communities, but this approach should not be required,” reads the CSBA’s official website. “Local students, parents and teachers understand their needs better than Sacramento legislators and have the most stake in doing what’s right for children and families.” This was a viewpoint echoed by Governor Brown when denying the passage of Portantino’s Late Start Bill.
Even with the failure of a statewide solution, a small number of California school districts have already established similar policies addressing the issue of start time at a local level. Back in 2014, in response to a recommendation from the American Association of Pediatrics, Davis Joint Unified School District’s Deputy Superintendent Matt Best proposed a “Late Start Initiative” for all three Davis middle schools in addition to Davis Senior High School and Da Vinci Charter Academy. The district was faced with concerns, similar to those of the Senate bill’s opposition lobbyists, from students who took issue with how these schedule changes would affect after-school athletics. Additionally, parents grew anxious over the likelihood of traffic congestion on 14th street, which is shared by DHS, North Davis Elementary and St. James.
“We were ahead of the game and had a pretty progressive view of how you go about solving this,” says Best. “And [the process] still took almost two years.” Nevertheless, concerns from community members were ultimately addressed and later start times were officially implemented beginning with the 2017-18 school year. Since then, the changes have proven to be greatly impactful on student life, with numbers reporting a decrease in tardiness at the junior high level as well as a self-reported survey of DHS students showing that students were getting more sleep overall.
While Best says he felt Gov. Brown’s veto of the California Late Start Bill was “a smart decision” and that solving this problem is “done better locally,” he feels that the success of Davis’s “Late Start Initiative” may inspire other districts throughout California and the country as a whole to rethink how an early start to the school day impacts student’s sleep patterns and performance in school. “We did a pretty good job of capturing our process,” he says. “It’s not impossible. You can do it through through thoughtful planning and the engagement of your community.”