Later school bells, alternative testing: California lawmakers try again on quashed K-12 bills

California hit the snooze button last year on legislation that would have let middle and high school students sleep in a little longer. The later—and, experts say, healthier—school start time would have been a national first had Gov. Jerry Brown not vetoed it.

This year, Democratic state Sen. Anthony Portantino of La Cañada Flintridge, author of Senate Bill 328, is bringing that bill back. And he’s not the only one looking for a do-over on bills that would impact California school kids.

From funding to testing to charter school regulations, many legislators this session are reviving past education proposals that either stalled at the Capitol or fell to the stroke of Brown’s veto pen. [infoembed size=”half” override=”” align=”right” padding=”light”]

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It’s not unusual for a bill to be run up the flagpole more than once before a majority of state lawmakers pass it. This year, however, the political landscape on education has shifted, both because of big electoral victories in November for legislative Democrats and California teachers’ unions and because, for the first time in eight years, the Golden State has a governor with small children.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a father of four who was elected with strong labor backing, has already signed into law a charter school bill that had been vetoed by Brown twice, requiring charters to follow the same open-meeting and conflict of interest laws as traditional public schools. Other hotly debated charter regulation proposals this session include a bill vetoed twice by Brown that would prohibit districts from operating charters outside of their geographic boundaries.

Meanwhile, hotly debated legislation that would essentially prohibit low-income schools from hiring teachers through programs such as Teach For America passed the Assembly Education Committee this year after fizzling out last year without any hearings.

Also up for re-examination are school funding proposals that were viewed as nonstarters in years past, due to the likelihood of pushback in the Legislature from Republicans and moderate Democrats. This year, Democrats not only control the Capitol, but have mega-majorities in both legislative chambers, with anti-tax conservatives fairly solidly outnumbered.

So in the Senate, legislators are advancing a long-sought proposal to lower the threshold of votes school districts need to pass local parcel taxes, from two-thirds to 55%. The authors of Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 have said that Democrats’ supermajorities offer reassurance that the effort will have the required two-thirds votes in the Assembly and Senate to put a referendum on the 2020 ballot.

Its passage would be consequential, both for schools and taxpayers. The number of local school bond measures has exploded since the voter permission threshold for that kind of public borrowing was similarly lowered. Voters have passed more than 85% of local school bond measures since 2012, while parcel taxes remain a more uncertain and infrequent gamble for schools.

The school start time bill, which the Assembly Education Committee will discuss Wednesday, was one of the most divisive education measures to make it to Brown’s desk last year. It cleared the Legislature by one vote, borne on physicians’ arguments that earlier and earlier school days were interrupting kids’ circadian rhythms and damaging their health.

In the weeks that followed, however, the California School Boards Association and California Teachers Association lobbied fiercely to defeat the measure, which opponents argued would have substantially impacted school bus schedules and working-class families. A reliable supporter of local control throughout his second stint as governor, Brown rejected what he described in his veto letter as “a one-size-fits-all approach that is opposed by teachers and school boards.”

The arguments for and against earlier school starts haven’t changed with this year’s legislation. (The current bill mandates that secondary schools start instruction no later than 8:30 a.m.)

Portantino and supporters of the bill describe it as a response to a public health crisis. They point to a growing body of research that illustrates how a later start to the school day helps reverse harmful effects that sleep deprivation can have on growing adolescents’ bodies and on academic performance.

“We have a science-based, proven public health policy that puts the health and welfare of our children before adult logistical concerns,” Portantino said, adding: “This is the right thing to do.”

The California School Boards Association supports the science and intent behind the bill, but says that implementing such a requirement across California’s 1,000-plus school districts is easier said than done.

Troy Flint, spokesman for the school boards association, said that “every board should evaluate the issue,” and added that the fact that several school boards in California have already decided to implement schedules that start instruction later in the morning is an example of “the process at work.”

“There’s no way that legislators in Sacramento can account for all the externalities that would exist in the 1,000 school districts across the state. And so that’s why implementation decisions should be made at the local level rather than be dictated at the Capitol,” Flint said.

Irena Keller, a leader in the California chapter of the national advocacy group Start School Later, said “the science is clear—they [teenagers] need to sleep in the morning. It’s harmful to ask them to wake up so early and some schools just do it.”

Keller also pointed to her child’s local high school in Pleasanton as an example of “a decision that was made without anybody even understanding the topic of sleep.” Parents at Foothill High School were mixed on whether they supported a later school start. In response, Keller said, the school recently adopted a bell schedule in which first period begins at 8:35 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“If you ask any specialist, they will tell you having irregular sleep schedule is the worst thing you can do to sleep in general,” Keller said.

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