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It's too early to move all California middle and high schools to a later start

It's too early to move all California middle and high schools to a later start
The first day of school in the Los Angeles Unified School District on August 16, 2016. (Los Angeles Times)

If Gov. Jerry Brown is sincere about empowering local school districts rather than dictating the minutiae of their operations at the state level, he will veto Senate Bill 328. The bill to make schools start later in the morning was an overreach when it was introduced by Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) last year, and though it has been scaled back a bit, its inherent problems remain.

SB 328 would require all public middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., with exemptions for rural schools and for so-called zero periods before the start of the regular school day. More than three-fourths of California middle and high schools start classes earlier than 8:30, or at least they did in 2011-2012, a federal analysis found.

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Studies have found several benefits to a later start. Better sleep for teenagers is associated with improved mood, higher academic achievement and reduced rates of drinking and drug use. Later start times have the endorsement of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But there could be some real drawbacks as well. For parents with traditional working hours, getting the kids to school later could make it nearly impossible to report for work on time. Athletics and other extracurriculars would shift later into the day, meaning that during late fall and winter, more students would be coming home in the dark. They would be getting a later start on homework, too.

The final version of the bill exempts rural schools from the later start time, a change Portantino said he made to court the votes of legislators representing those areas. That’s part of the bill-making process, but it ignores the valid concerns of other areas of the state.

Of course, state legislators can’t be expected to know all the complications affecting schools in different parts of California, and that’s the point. These are the kinds of issues that local schools do know about. Although the evidence gathered about later school times has been positive so far, it doesn’t yet make a convincing case for changing almost every middle and high school in the state, in huge school districts such as Los Angeles as well as small one-school charter operations.

More California schools should be trying later start times, but this doesn’t necessarily have to happen in lockstep. At this point, it would make more sense for the state to offer incentives for schools to start later and study the results in a variety of school districts. If the change does yield big benefits, yet most schools cling to old ways out of pure stubbornness or union resistance, then Sacramento might need to wield a bigger stick.

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