Viewpoints

California’s idea of a full school day doesn’t make the grade

State Sen. Anthony J. Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, has introduced Senate Bill 328 to shift start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for middle and high school students statewide.
State Sen. Anthony J. Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, has introduced Senate Bill 328 to shift start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for middle and high school students statewide. Sacramento Bee file

Many mornings, I think my state senator has the best policy idea in California.

At other times, I think he’s missing the point.

The idea involves the sleep of schoolkids, and the state senator is Anthony Portantino, who represents the San Gabriel Valley.

Portantino has won plaudits for a bill requiring middle and high schools to start the school day later – no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The bill is grounded in research showing that a later start would reduce tardiness and absenteeism, thus increasing school funding (which is tied to attendance) and improving academic performance.

My two older sons’ school starts at 8:10 a.m. So, at 8:02 a.m., Portantino’s bill has such obvious appeal that I wonder why he doesn’t extend its protection to elementary schools. Some days, just eight minutes before school starts, I climb to the top bunk to wrestle my oldest son, a second-grader, out of bed and into his clothes so we can race three blocks to school.

Sometimes I dive deep into the lower bunk to pull out my middle son, a kindergartener. Yes, I could wake them earlier – but this causes conflict and doesn’t necessarily get them out of bed. I try to get them in bed at 8:30 p.m. so they’ll wake up earlier, but they just stay up reading “Captain Underpants” books. Another 20 minutes of wiggle room, courtesy of state law, sounds pretty good.

But then I remember that the real problem in California education is not how early the school day starts.

It’s how early the school day concludes.

In California, a “full” day of school is not even close to an actual full day. The state requires only half-day kindergarten, which amounts to just 3 hours and 20 minutes. First- through third-graders are required to have only 4 hours and 40 minutes per day. It’s five hours for grades four to eight, and six hours for high schoolers.

The calendar at our local elementary school is thus typical. My kindergartener is with his teachers from only 8:10 a.m. to 11:35 a.m. My second-grader is in class until 2:25 p.m. four days a week; on Friday, there’s early dismissal at 1:05 p.m. These shorter school days happen in a California that, following American tradition, guarantees just 180 school days a year.

This has the feel of rationing and missed opportunity. Despite the low reputation of California education, our teachers and schools have made big gains in achievement over the past generation. So many of the teachers I’ve encountered in California schools are nothing less than magicians. Why can’t we give our kids more time with them?

The biggest answer is money: More school time would require more money and labor, and California’s rickety school funding regime struggles to pay for the instruction we currently have. But extensive research shows we should find a way.

Dozens of studies of campuses with longer school days and school years have found that such schools do better, especially in serving students considered to be at risk. The chain of charter schools known as KIPP has become a national model by increasing learning time with a school day that extends more than eight hours, typically from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

In Sacramento, some bills propose to exempt teachers from certain taxes. That’s fine, on one condition: an increase in the length of the school day and year.

How long? Well, 9 to 5 was good enough for Dolly Parton. And if a longer day means the kids come home tired, so much the better. Maybe they’ll get to bed on time – and wake up early so I don’t have to wrestle anyone out of his bunk.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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