A two-year battle to set middle- and high-school start times at 8:30 a.m. or later was finally put to bed in the Legislature when the measure squeaked through Friday night.
Last year, Senate Bill 328 by Democratic Sen. Anthony Portantino failed to pass the Assembly by 15 votes. Since then, the bill was amended to exempt rural school districts in order to accommodate farming needs.
Lawmakers enthusiastically affirmed the research the bill was based on, which shows that early start times combined with teenagers’ natural sleep schedules lead to sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep, in turn, increases risks of poor grades, mental illness and car accidents. One study found moving start times from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. made students happier and more likely to show up for class.
But despite agreeing about the benefits of later start times, many lawmakers did not want to impose new scheduling headaches on parents who have to drop off their children before work.
“Theory and research come in conflict with practicality,” said Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, a Democrat and a former teacher. “Even without an early time slot, I’ve often seen kids dropped off at school at 7 a.m. or earlier.”
Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher said that all school hours can inconvenience working parents, many of whom do not have traditional nine-to-five jobs.
“I come from a district where we have a large population of janitors who work until 2:30, often 3:00 in the morning and then have to wake up at a certain time to take their kids to school,” Gonzalez Fletcher said.
A mandated start time could also create problems for schools as they renegotiate teacher contracts and reschedule extracurricular activities. Districts that stagger bus service might need to buy more buses. Local governments, opponents in both parties said, are better equipped to decide start times based on these kinds of challenges.
“Why have a school district if we’re going to pass this bill?” Democratic Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell asked.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat, said that school boards would be unable to change school start times, recalling a debate she witnessed over the issue 20 years ago during her career in education.
“You thought somebody had killed everybody’s child, stolen every grandparent on the face of the Earth, blown up everybody’s business, because we were changing start times,” she said.
Several lawmakers supported the bill despite serious concerns and even their own school districts’ opposition. Some, including Democratic Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, who is running for state superintendent of public instruction, suggested that schools would look to the Legislature and the governor for help in implementing the 8:30 a.m. start time.
Thurmond also praised the quality of the debate.
“Everything I heard was a fact,” Thurmond said. “And that might be a first, at least for what I’ve heard on this floor.”