Mandating later school start times in California impinges on local control

October 30, 2019

High school students prepare to board a bus. California high schools can start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. now that SB 328 is in effect.

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Under California’s system of local control of its schools, when to start the school day seems like a basic decision that should be left to local school boards and superintendents.

That is why a state law (SB 328) signed this month by Gov. Gavin Newsom to give teenagers more time to sleep is raising concerns among many educators that the principle of local control of schools is not sacrosanct, at least not to the degree it was when Jerry Brown was governor. What is not known is whether the new law will presage a further erosion of the authority of local school boards and administrators.

If it did, that would run counter to the current shift toward local control, after nearly two decades in which top-down policies emanating from Sacramento and Washington dominated the nation’s education reform agenda, without coming close to achieving the results they were intended to have.

The Legislature approved the bill, the first of its kind in the country, despite analyses in the Assembly and Senate saying that the new law raises “fundamental questions about the balance of state and local control,” and whether it is “consistent with the intent of the Local Control Funding Formula,” the landmark law Brown championed devolving more decision-making to school districts.

Brown vetoed an almost identical school start time bill law last year, declaring that “these are the types of decisions best handled in the local community.”

There was some doubt whether Newsom would sign the bill, given its obvious intrusion into local decision-making. He waited until the last day that he was allowed by law to sign the bill and he did so without any public comment.

The bill’s many backers cited compelling research showing that lack of sleep affects a teenager’s academic performance and school attendance, and that appears to be what moved Newsom, who established a reputation while mayor of San Francisco for looking closely at available evidence to back up any policy shift.

Brown even introduced a new term — subsidiarity — to describe the shift toward more local control, and it became a central principle of education reform during the eight years he was in office.

In one State of the State address, Brown explained the term this way: that central authority (in this case, Sacramento) “should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.”

Instead of “prescriptive commands issued from headquarters here in Sacramento,” Brown said, school funding reforms should “set more general goals” that “put responsibility where it should be” — in the classroom and school. “There is no way the state can micromanage teaching and learning in all the schools from El Centro to Eureka and we shouldn’t even try,” he said.

The law Newsom signed arguably falls into the micromanaging category. It requires middle schools to start no earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m. — although in one big loophole, it still allows districts to offer so-called early morning “zero period” classes at any time they wish to. Those classes can start at any time — and many do as early as 7 a.m. These classes are often required supplements to regular classes — such as a lab course — or are courses needed for graduation, such as physical education. In addition, rural schools will also be exempted from the law.

Newsom signed the bill despite objections to the law from many local school districts, such as Compton Unified, San Jose Unified and Torrance Unified, and several county offices of education. The California Teachers Association, one of Newsom’s major backers during his gubernatorial campaign, also opposed it.

“School start times should be decided at the local level and include community input,” the CTA maintained. Among other concerns, CTA officials worry that low-income families who have less flexibility in the workplace will have the most difficulty adjusting to later start times if they have to drop their children off at school later.

The California School Boards Association said the mandate “fails to respect parental decisions or consider the needs of local communities.”

Even Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, a former school teacher who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, opposed the bill. “Sacramento does not know best” he said.

What is clear is that the bill could have a direct impact on at least some schools districts, although there is no current database of how many schools start school earlier than the prescribed new time.

A later start time could cut into teacher preparation time, for example. Districts would have to renegotiate start times with their teacher and staff unions. Some districts that provide transportation currently have staggered start times to allow the same buses to make several runs to pick up students at different grade levels. But as a result of the new law, school start times may overlap and districts may have to get extra buses and staff, at a substantial cost.

It is also clear that there have always been tensions between how to balance local control with state and federal oversight. California has thousands of state laws regulating local schools and districts — codified in a 3,000-plus-page state Education Code. That means the line between what is a local responsibility and what is a state one is hardly a bright one.

In California in particular the way schools have been financed over more than four decades has eroded the concept of local control. In 1977, the California Supreme Court in the landmark Serrano v. Priest ruling declared the use of local property taxes as the main form of school financing unconstitutional. That required the state to step in to try to equalize funding and along with it came a slew of state mandates.

Local control took another hit when voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, severely restricting the ability of schools to raise their own funds. As a result, the state now essentially collects local property taxes and combines those with state funds and allocates the funding back to the school district. This has resulted in more equitable funding of schools. But it also means that the state exerts considerable power over school districts because of its control of how funds are allocated — and through dozens of so-called “categorical programs” prescribing how they should be spent.

During Brown’s tenure, most of those categorical programs were phased out to give local school districts more flexibility and authority in how to spend state funds. The Local Control Funding Formula directed a larger share of state funds to districts to spend on low-income and other students who on average struggle.

At the same time many children’s advocates were uneasy with handing over too much power to districts and tried to convince the state to be more assertive in holding school districts accountable for getting results. Brown resisted most of those pressures, but they have not gone away.

Those tensions are mirrored on a federal level. Civil rights and other advocates have pushed back against the thrust of the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by then-President Barack Obama in 2015. The act has diminished the role of the federal government, in contrast to the far more intrusive provisions of the No Child Left Behind law which it replaced.

For now it is unclear whether Gov. Newsom’s decision to sign the later school start law was simply because he found the arguments in its favor so compelling that it justified intruding on local authority, or whether schools can expect more laws like it during his governorship, in which the state asserts more control.

But there is no obvious trend yet.  Newsom this month invoked local control as grounds for vetoing some legislation, notably one that would have increased maternity leave for teachers.  That, he said in his veto message, is an issue that should be resolved through collective bargaining at a local level.

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