Editorial

California lawmakers shouldn't dictate when the school day starts

There are all kinds of good reasons for public middle schools and high schools to switch to later start times. Studies of schools that have done so found lower tardiness and absenteeism, and higher academic achievement. Better-rested teenagers suffer less depression, fewer sports injuries and lower rates of traffic accidents. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended a later start to school.

Educators have been talking about this for years, and yet only a relative handful of school districts across the country have done anything about it. So, up to a point, Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) is doing Californians a favor by introducing legislation on the subject.

But only up to a point. By requiring all public middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., SB 328 would represent an overreach by Sacramento, dictating a decision better left to local school districts. For all of the advantages of later start times, they might not work for all communities and all schools.

This sort of regulatory humility was the idea behind Gov. Jerry Brown’s “subsidiarity” policy — decentralizing authority, pushing more decision-making out of Sacramento and into the hands of local agencies and governments in the belief that they are best able to determine what is needed for their constituents. 

School scheduling is a balancing act. Districts must weigh the clear advantage of a later start to the day against the effects of a later end on the communities they serve. For example, schools in higher-crime areas may not want to force students to head home in the dark following after-school activities. Others may have many students whose lives would be disrupted by a later dismissal because they work part-time or are needed to help care for a family member. 

The reason for standardizing start times is sound enough: It makes it easier to schedule games for interscholastic sports. By requiring everyone to change at once, the state would in effect push all schools into changing the game times. But that’s just one of the reasons school districts hesitate to change their schedules.

Not every potentially good idea calls for a sweeping new mandate from Sacramento, where legislators can’t possibly understand the unique circumstances in each of the state’s more than 1,000 school districts.  In fact, the reverse is true: The state should keep hands off unless there is a compelling reason to change things. 

We’re glad that Portantino wants to do more than merely talk about this, but he should take a slower approach with his bill in order to avoid unanticipated consequences. He should provide incentives for school districts to try a later start time and require continued assessment of how well it’s working. The bill also could set up a panel that includes school superintendents and sports coaches to figure out how schools with different start times could coordinate game schedules.

The history of education is littered with ideas that looked sound but were implemented too fast on too large a scale. The state can encourage schools to be more open-minded about a later school day, without laying down a new law for nearly 3 million diverse students. 

To read the article in Spanish, click here

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