California State Senator Anthony Portantino, who insist on being called Tony and represents the 25th Senate District, which lies mostly within Los Angeles county, never intended to be a leading voice on school start times. But Tony is a dad and Tony likes data and Tony doesn’t want teenagers hitting people or buildings or each other with cars. So, now, Tony is the author of SB 328, a bill that “would require the schoolday for middle schools and high schools to begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m” in California. It’s a popular bill and fairly likely to pass. That’s because Tony, low-key legislative hero that he is, has some extremely good points.
Tony argues that sleep is a public health issue for children and teens. Research suggests that middle schoolers and high schoolers that arrive at school sleep deprived aren’t being given the best chance to succeed and that early bed times won’t solve the problem, which seems to be developmental. Tony finds it ridiculous that the education system keeps banging its head (teens’ heads really) against a biological wall. He wants it to stop and he thinks he can make it stop in California while modeling a new way forward for schools across the country.
Fatherly spoke Tony about his bill, his family, and how little things can make a big difference for kids.
Just for the sake of our audience, do you mind tell us exactly what the bill you are sponsoring is and what you are hoping to achieve?
I read a newspaper article about a year and a half ago about the research on teenage sleep and relationship to school start times and teenage sleep patterns. I was very intrigued so I started to do some independent research. What I found was that there’s about twenty years of data on teenage brain chemistry, teenage sleep patterns, ands school start times. Here’s what that research said: Teenagers require ten hours of sleep a night and they actually get four and a half to five hours of sleep a night.
Some people say early to bed, early to rise. Well, the problem is, if you put your teenager to bed at 9 o’clock, their biological and physically unable to fall asleep until 11 o’clock. The melatonin in teenage brains does not allow them to fall asleep on average before 11 o’clock at night. And getting your kid up at 6:30 for 7:30 start time, that’s the biological clock of getting an adult up at 4 o’clock in the morning.
What are some of the benefits of later start times for schools?
There are 400 school districts around the country that have moved their start time to 8:30 or later. In those 400 school districts, we have seen dramatic results. Test scores go up, graduation rates go up, attendance goes up. At the same time, depression goes down. Suicidal thoughts go down. Obesity goes down. Drug use goes down. The number one killer of teens in America is car accidents. Car accidents go down.
Sports participation goes up.
Those 400 school districts represent the gamut of demographics. We have urban school districts, rural school districts, suburban school districts, English learners, working parents. Every demographic has a benefit.
Does later school start times affect graduation rates at all?
There’s a district in Texas that saw an 11% increase in graduation rate.
What specific scientific research have you done that supports your claim?
The American Academy of Pediatrics looked at all this data and research and came out with a recommendation in 2014 that high schools and middle schools should start no earlier than 8:30. The Center for Disease Control also looked at the same data and came up with the same conclusion…. To me it is almost irresponsible of us not to do everything we can to do what’s in the best interest of our kids.
How has your constituency and your district been responding to the proposal of this bill?
People come at it and are like, ‘Is this a parenting issue or is this a health issue?’ I think the more they hear the science and look at the results, the more converts I get. A school district can’t use lead paint on its wall because we know ingesting lead paint causes brain damage. We know that sleep depriving our teenagers is making them turn to drugs, consider suicide, get into more car accidents, and not perform to their full potential. That’s a public health issue and so it’s appropriate for the state to involve itself in a public health issue.
There are many many school district out there who want to switch to the late start, but because of extra curricular activities don’t. Because if you have one school district on one schedule and one on another it messes up the extracurriculars for all the others. So I think there is a legitimate public health reason for the state to do it.
How do you think policies happen on a national level, especially in this area of hyper partisanship? These sound like policies that would benefit all children across all schools.
One of the things that’s exciting about California is we are such a large state. If we can implement it in California, we can show the rest of the country that a state that is as diverse as America can do it. The interesting thing is that I introduced the bill without even being aware of the national movement. I just read an article as a dad that touched me.
How would schools implement the bill? Are there any logistical concerns?
The bill itself is well crafted I believe because it says you have to do this by July 2020. We’re talking over two years. I’m giving school districts two plus years to have a community plan. The other piece of it that people need to grasp, so let’s say your school gets out at 2:30 and you budget for after school activities from 2:30 to 6. Now, if your school gets out at 3:30 you one less hour of after school that you are spending resources to. Let’s say you have an after school day care program, there’s one less hour of budgeting. That frees up an hour of resources that can be shifted to morning issues situated with the change.
What are some last thoughts or anything else you want to say in summation about why this issue should be important to parents?
I think how often have you heard community leaders, political leaders, educators say we need to put the best interests of our kids first. We need to focus on what’s important, and what’s important is what’s important to our kids. Well, here is a proven, scientific based, results backed up way to improve the health and welfare of our children simply by giving a schedule that allows them to have more appropriate sleep. It’s simple. It’s verify. Frankly, the folks who want to deny the science, this is about the kids. We should do it.