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California gives teenagers a lie-in

SCHOOL STARTING times in America vary from an average of 7.48am in go-getting Mississippi to 8.31am in late-rising Connecticut. According to a survey by the National Centre for Education Statistics in 2017-18, only in two states—Alaska and Connecticut—do schools tend to start after 8.30am, the earliest recommended by a number of medical organisations. That may soon change. On October 13th Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, signed legislation which cuts 2.7m of the state’s schoolchildren some slack, setting a limit on starting times of half past eight for high-schoolers and eight o’clock for middle schoolers, in the hope that pupils will benefit from the extra time in bed.

There is plenty of reason to think they will. Puberty alters circadian rhythms, meaning adolescents are more alert in the afternoon and require more sleep in the morning. A research review by epidemiologists at the Centres for Disease Control finds that later school starting times correspond with improved attendance, less tardiness, less falling asleep in class, better grades and even fewer crashes involving youngsters driving themselves to school. The RAND Corporation estimates that moving to a half-past eight start across the country would boost the economy by more than $80bn within a decade.

In response to the evidence, school districts across the country have begun to move start times back, but California is the first state to take the leap. Parents and unions are often bitterly opposed. The California Teachers Association vociferously resisted the change, citing the financial burden on schools as they adjust to the new hours, as well as the burden on parents who work as labourers or in the service industry, and cannot start work later. Last year Mr Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, vetoed similar legislation, saying the decision should be left to school districts. “We should not set the bell schedule from Sacramento,” implored one Californian assemblyman this time round.

Supporters argue that it is appropriate for the state to set a minimum health-and-welfare standard, as it does in other areas. The legislation includes carve-outs for schools in rural areas and at least a three-year implementation period. It will be up to school districts to decide whether to end the day later, or cut its length. Anthony Portantino, the Democratic state senator who introduced the legislation, believes evidence of the change’s benefits will soon win over opponents in rural areas. “There really is no significant reason not to do this,” he says, “other than an overwhelming resistance to change from adults.” Which is an attitude many teenagers will be wearily familiar with.