California’s Cynical Decision Not to Let Kids Sleep

In a confounding vote, political actors and the California School Board Association showed that they prioritize the status quo over kids.

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child falling asleep in school

It’s fairly common knowledge that earlier school start times can be harmful to children. The research is backed up by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, and pretty much every other reputable scientific body that has looked into it. And, if the proof is in the pudding, there’s plenty to go around. Late start policies have been embraced by a number of schools, producing increased test scores, athletic performance, and self-reported happiness. So it was confounding when, a month or so ago, statewide late start bill formally known as SB328 was rejected by the California Assembly at least in part on the behest of the California School Board, a body that ostensibly exists to help kids thrive.

“You have rock-solid peer reviewed science which is then substantiated by 400 school districts around the country, and then we have independent economic analysis to show that there’s an economic benefit both to the school and to the overall economy,” says Senator Anthony Portantino, who sponsored the bill. “Local control, that was the main collective argument against it.”

What precisely does that mean? It means that the California School Boards Association worked hard to make sure that California School Boards, not the legislators for the state of California, would get to determine schedules on a case-by-case basis. Their argument: Local boards are best positioned to tailor schools to local communities. The counterargument: They haven’t. Schools still start too early even outside of the agricultural areas where later start times might present a legitimate hassle.

Strangely, even the politicians that voted against the measure seem to believe that schools should consider making a change.

“There’s some scientific evidence regarding the internal clocks of adolescents that I think are definitely worth taking into account,” says Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a Republican who voted against the bill. “But this is the sort of thing is best for families to be able to weigh in on directly, through their local school boards, because what’s right for one community may not be what’s right for another.”

Kiley is not wrong in that the later start times could inconvenience working families, but his point is perhaps best understood as an argument for the bill. By taking start times out of the hands of local boards and parents, the bill would have put a universal pressure on employers to increase flexibility or alter schedules.

“There’s a lot of factors that might go into play, from extracurricular activities starting, students who have jobs, when parents begin their day, aligning buses if you have multiple schools that use the same buses,” Kiley points out.

Again, correct, but also probably a strong argument in favor of statewide policy shifts.

What becomes clear looking into the bill is that it engenders strong feelings when it is understood as an education issue. The CSBA understood it as an education issue. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But Portantino insists that later start times are actually a health issue. And the experts have his back.

“Studies show that teenagers between the ages of 12 and 19 are not getting the recommended number of hours of sleep, which is somewhere between 8 and 10 hours,” says Dr. Marco Hefner, author of a report documenting the economic and physical benefits of later school start times. “This has negative consequences for the mental and physical health. They are more likely to get obese because lack of sleep is associated with obesity. At the same time, lack of sleep also has a negative impact on their academic performance. More sleep is associated with better academic grades, but also a higher chance of graduation and college attendance. Lack of sleep is associated with car crashes. We know that about one-quarter of car crashes are associated with lack of sleep, and that’s the number one cause of death of American teenagers.”

It’s worth lingering on that last point. Thousands of teens die annually. The number has gone down as the number of seatbelts has gone up, but the statistics remain galling.

The CSBA disregarded letters of support from both the American Academy of Pediatrics and Stanford University that corroborated the importance of the bill. They lobbied against the advice of pediatricians and experts.

For Portantino, the 30-to-26 vote against SB328 was deeply disappointing but hardly final. “The bill is still alive, but it ran into a little roadblock,” he says.

And he’s got another way to make the case. If lawmakers aren’t stirred to action by the health benefits of later start times, they may be compelled by the potential economic benefits. Hefner’s data indicates that changing school start times nationally could add $9 billion to the economy annually. Again, that’s not really an argument about education. It’s an argument for taking action and not assuming that employers should be allowed to control parents’ priorities.

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