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Exclusive: School autonomy vs. teen sleep — Charter schools join opposition to California’s late-start bill after last-minute addition

Sarah Favot | September 11, 2017

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State Sen. Anthony J. Portantino. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

California charter middle and high schools would be prohibited from starting school before 8:30 a.m. under a bill that will be voted on by the Assembly this week after a concern was raised that they would have an unfair advantage over district schools for enrollment.

The addition of charter schools this month prompted the California Charter Schools Association to oppose the bill. They joined the California Teachers Association, a usual foe, which has opposed the bill from its introduction for the same reasons: autonomy for local districts and schools. The growing opposition has raised questions about whether the lobbying efforts against it will kill the bill.

Under the original language of the bill, SB 328, public charter schools were not mentioned explicitly, but they would have been exempt from the requirement because they are exempt from many laws that govern traditional public schools giving them more autonomy. One of the autonomies that charter schools have is setting their own school day schedules.

The inclusion of charter schools in the bill was the result of an amendment by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, not a policy committee. That committee approved the bill on Sept. 1 with 11 Democrats and one Republican voting in favor of it; four Republicans opposed it. The Assembly is expected to vote on the bill this week, possibly as early as late Monday. If the Assembly passes the bill and the Senate concurs, it will head to the governor’s desk.

The late start requirement would become effective for the 2020-21 school year.

“There really was no substantive argument against including all schools which the bill intended to do in the beginning,” state Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge, the bill’s author, said in an email Monday. “We are armed with 20 years of research, 400 school districts with positive results and strong economic data in support. SB 328 is advancing on merit and I’m hopeful that trend will continue.”

Portantino has argued that scientific research shows that adolescents’ sleep cycles dictate that they stay awake later and sleep in longer. But the average start time at middle and high schools in California is 8:07 a.m. Medical and pediatric organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended that middle and high schools start later.

Regarding whether the bill should apply to charter schools, a consultant for the Assembly Education Committee wrote in an analysis that there is “no reason to believe that the sleep requirements of charter school pupils are any different from traditional school pupils.”

“Moreover, to the extent that this bill constrains the start time of traditional schools but not of charter schools, it would create an uneven playing field and put traditional schools at a disadvantage in the competition for enrollment,” the consultant wrote.

Ten percent of schools in California are charter schools, while 16 percent of the schools in LA Unified are charter schools.

When charters would have been exempt from the bill CCSA did not have an opinion on it.

“Since the bill will now limit charter schools’ flexibility while negatively impacting the many specialized programs charter schools offer, CCSA opposes this bill,” the organization wrote in a legislative update .

The California School Boards Association, which also opposes the bill, has said it believes that local school districts should decide whether schools should start later. A CTA spokesman said in an email it is also opposed for similar reasons.

“We think later starts are a good idea but have concerns that a one size fits all approach could have unintended consequences, and be a real financial issue for some districts with staggered bus schedules,” Frank Wells said. “We think local boards are better able to address those local concerns.”

Eric Premack, executive director and founder of Charter Schools Development Center, said his organization has not taken a stance on the bill. He said if the bill passes, it could cause disruption and higher costs to districts with complex transportation systems. Ultimately, he said, it’s hard to say which way the Assembly will vote.

“It’s had an awful lot of momentum behind it because I think there’s a gut appeal — sometimes lobbying power can overcome it. Sometimes it can’t,” he said.

But he guessed Gov. Jerry Brown would veto it because Brown’s education policy has been built on local control.

“The governor has surprised me in the past,” Premack said. “You never really know until it’s over.”

The CTA is a powerful lobbying force in Sacramento with bills it has opposed being killed especially around the issues of teacher tenure. CCSA has also built up its lobbying power, spending millions in the 2016 election cycle to elect candidates they’ve supported.

CTA endorsed Portantino in his 2016 race.

Portantino’s bill received a boost this month with a report from RAND Corporation that showed pushing back school start times could contribute $1 billion to the state’s economy within two years and $24.8 billion in 20 years based on an increase in student academic performance and a decline in traffic accidents caused by drowsy teenage drivers.

The bill has drawn the support of the California state PTA, the LA County Office of Education, California Federation of Teachers, Stanford University School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics, and school districts like Pasadena Unified, South Pasadena Unified, and Manhattan Beach Unified.

The LA Unified school board has not taken a stance on the bill, but the district has piloted a late start at a handful of middle schools this year. The La Canada Unified school board voted last spring to have a late start at La Canada High School beginning this school year.

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