by Lisa Lewis
The issue of school start times first hit my radar in the fall of 2015, when my son entered high school. In our community, high school started at 7:30 a.m. But why? Was this the norm elsewhere, too? As a parent and a journalist, I started gathering information and writing about the topic. I also reached out to our district superintendent but got zero response.
In the fall of 2016, I wrote about it again, for the Los Angeles Times. While the op-ed gave me a boost of local visibility, there wasn’t any immediate change. Having recently started up a local chapter of Start School Later after connecting with the group during my research, I shifted my focus to seeing what I could accomplish locally.
Then, in January 2017, I found out my op-ed had sparked something bigger. State Senator Anthony Portantino, whose district is in Los Angeles, had read it. As it so happened, his daughter’s high school was in the midst of discussing later start times, so it was a topic that resonated with him. He looked into the issue further and decided to introduce a state bill. His office reached out to Start School Later, which agreed to sponsor the bill and looped in the state’s chapter leaders.
That bill, SB 328, which proposed 8:30 a.m. as the earliest allowed start time for the state’s middle and high schools, was introduced in February 2017. There had been similar proposed legislation in other states, but nothing of this scope had ever succeeded.
Almost immediately, the immensely powerful California Teachers Association, along with the California School Boards Association, decried the bill as overreach that impinged on local control. Meanwhile, the California Parent Teachers Association, focused on the bill’s merits for kids’ well-being, announced its support. The PTA provided key input that helped shape the bill, including having a three-year window to allow enough preparation, as well as clarifying that “zero periods” (optional before-school classes) could still be offered.
Drawing on the experience and guidance from Start School Later, several of us in California formed a virtual team: Mariah Baughn and Beth McNeill in San Diego, me in the Los Angeles area, Irena Keller (who’d founded the statewide Start School Later chapter) in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Joy Wake, Sue Gylling and Anne Del Core in Sacramento. Another key player: Stanford sleep specialist Rafael Pelayo, who serves on Start School Later’s Board of Directors.
Among our strategies:
Over a two-year period, the bill made it through numerous committees as well as floor votes on both the senate and assembly sides, eventually reaching Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. All that was needed was his signature. Instead, he vetoed the bill, stating that he believed the decision should be made locally.
Luckily, 2019 brought a new governor and another chance. On Feb. 15, 2019. Sen. Portantino brought the bill forth again, with two key amendments: an exemption for the state’s rural districts, and a start-time change for middle schools to “8 a.m. or later” rather than the “8:30 a.m. or later” change for high schools, which provided additional flexibility.
This time around, the California PTA signed on as a cosponsor of the bill, which brought additional visibility and resources.
Again, the bill made it through all of the previous steps. Gov. Gavin Newsom had thirty days to sign it into law – or veto it, as his predecessor had.
There was a final blitz of letters to Newsom’s office. There were final appeals from supporters. And, we knew, there were similar activities opposing the bill underway.
Finally, at about 8:30 p.m. on the very last day, Newsom signed it into law.
What it finally took: Persistence, allies, communication, timing, flexibility
Ultimately, what we accomplished in California drew on the body of research and many advocacy efforts to date, as well as the active support of countless researchers and the critical connections forged by Start School Later. May it continue to bolster similar efforts elsewhere.
Adapted excerpt from The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teens Are So Tired, And How Parents And Schools Can Help them Thrive, published by Mango Publishing Group, June 2022.
Lisa L. Lewis is the author of The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired, And How Parents And Schools Can Help Them Thrive, described as “a call to action” by Arianna Huffington and “an urgent and timely read” by Daniel H. Pink. The book is an outgrowth of her previous work on the topic, including her role helping get California’s landmark law on healthy school start times passed. Lewis has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and others. She’s a parent to a teen and a recent teen and lives in California. More info: www.lisallewis.com.
Many school districts may need statewide legislation to spur or support later start times. Here's what you can do to help that happen.
by Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD
Has your district still failed to ensure safe, healthy school hours? Join the club. Though any school district can establish sleep-friendly school hours on its own initiative--and many have--most still have not taken action.
Despite clear calls for change since the 1990s, many school districts may need statewide legislation to spur or support later start times. Below are some advocacy tips that we've picked up over the years working for bills to study, incentivize, and even mandate sleep-friendly school start times. You can also find information on current legislative activity—as well as past success stories—on Start School Later's Legislation Page.
Tip #1: Find an elected official to champion the cause
To get your bill off the ground, you first want to find an elected official to introducing, or sponsoring, it. A bill can have numerous sponsors, often referred to as co-sponsors, but someone needs to get the ball rolling.
Tip #2: Start with your own elected official(s)
If that person or delegation won’t take the lead, it’s wise to pursue a legislator or several who serve on or lead committees that have the authority to work on health, educational or appropriations-related legislation
Despite clear calls for change since the 1990s, many school districts may need statewide legislation to spur or support later start times.
Tip #3: Determine if you or the legislator is taking the lead
Some legislators will do the needed research and bill writing. Others will rely on you or other advocates to provide information, do research, and even draft bill language.
Tip #4: Connect with Start School Later
Ideally you should choose 1-2 representatives from your state or local Start School Later chapter who have the knowledge and time to be a resource and partner. The legislator can use Start School Later in getting support from both constituents and expert organizations likely to support the bill,
Tip #5: Strive for bipartisan support
Try to find legislative sponsors and subsequent "yes" votes in both legislative chambers (when there are two) and within both or all political parties,
Emphasizing that it's much easier for local leaders to do the right thing (and deflecting community ire away from local school leaders) can be key. So can emphasizing that statewide parameters ensure that child's ability to go to school at sleep-friendly hours won't vary by zip code
Tip #6: Neutralize the opposition
While advocates for healthy school hours see starting school later as a no-brainer, many people don’t. Any legislative effort for school hours change will attract the attention of individuals and organizations—including parents, teachers, school officials staff, and local businesses--that fear and thus oppose change. Some of these opponents have the type of financial resources and influence that community advocates just don't have, so it is important to find ways to neutralize their opposition. Try talking and compromising with them, using evidence to counter speculation and fear, or, if all else fails, minimizing publicity about the legislation until absolutely necessary,
Tip #7: Build a base of supporters
As an advocacy leader, you want to establishing an energized and committed base of supporters in place before introducing legislation. You need to be able to ask these supporters to supply written and oral testimony at legislative hearings and to contact legislators during key votes, sometimes with a very quick turnaround. An email list of people who support healthy teen sleep and sensible school start times can be invaluable here. Such supporters should be asked to take action by, for instance, signing an online petition; calling, writing to or visiting the offices of their legislators; writing letters to newspapers, posting on social media, and/or influencing others.
Tip #8: Stress that local districts need help--and that they CAN make this work
Stressing the need for help ensuring safe, healthy, equitable school hours—and the feasibility of doing so—is critical. Even if legislators agree that school should start at 8:30 or later, they will often reject legislation on the grounds that school hours should be decided locally ("local control") or that change isn't practical and/or affordable. That leads to a lot of agreeing that this "should be done" but also a lot of "kicking the can." Emphasizing that it's much easier for local leaders to do the right thing (and deflecting community ire away from local school leaders) can be key. So can emphasizing that statewide parameters ensure that child's ability to go to school at sleep-friendly hours won't vary by zip code
Note: This blog was adapted from Start School Later materials originally put together by Debbie O. Moore
Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD, is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Start School Later/Healthy Hours.