Later school start times could mean billions for economy, study says

The Wichita Eagle

Later starts to the school day could mean more rest for sleep-deprived teenagers.

It also could mean billions more dollars for the U.S. economy, according to new research.

A study published by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit global policy think tank, showed that moving the first bell to 8:30 a.m. across America’s middle and high schools could add $9.3 billion to the economy within the next year and $83 billion over the next decade.

In Kansas, the economic impact of starting school later would be more than $3 billion over the next 10 years, according to the study.

“A major concern among school districts – and really a deterrent to doing what’s best – are concerns about cost,” said Wendy Troxel, a behavioral and social scientist and one of the study’s authors.

“So we decided to really flip that on its head and say, ‘Wait a second: Given what we know about the public health consequences of this, let’s take a longer-term view and find out how much this is actually costing us.’”

For the study, researchers looked at school start times from 47 states, including Kansas. Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and a previous study by the Brookings Institution, they projected economic gains that would emerge through “higher academic and professional performance” of students getting more sleep, as well as reduced rates of car crashes among adolescent drivers.

The Rand study did not consider other health factors associated with insufficient sleep among adolescents, including increased rates of obesity, heart disease, depression, substance abuse and suicide.

“If anything, these could be under-estimates,” said Troxel, a nationally known sleep researcher. “At the end of the day it makes sense from a dollar perspective, and the public health perspective has always been crystal clear.”

Earlier this year, the Wichita school board voted to start school 10 minutes earlier. That pushed start times for Northeast Magnet High School and several magnet middle schools to 6:50 a.m.

Most other Wichita secondary and K-8 schools start at 7:50 a.m., and most elementary schools begin at 8:50 a.m.

Major medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, suggest that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to accommodate the biological influences in adolescent sleep-wake schedules.

Even so, said Troxel, the sleep researcher, fewer than 20 percent of secondary schools across the country begin class at 8:30 or later.

“Schools continue to advance start times despite over 30 years of robust sleep science,” she said. “It’s a very short-sighted solution, and we’ve got to start recognizing that biology is not changeable.”

Wichita officials say start times at some schools, which were pushed back several years ago as part of a cost-cutting measure, allow the district to make the most of its transportation budget. Arranging start times into three tiers means one bus potentially can be used to transport students to three schools, which cuts down on the number of buses required.

Besides increased transportation costs, starting high schools later would create other ripple effects, district officials have said. Times would shift for after-school sports and other activities, which means losing daylight during late fall and early spring practices, and would cut further into evening family time.

Students with after-school jobs – and the businesses that depend on them – would have to adjust their schedules as well.

Troxel said the new study illustrates long-term economic costs of school start times and should be a talking point for school districts.

“When the argument is that earlier start times are a cost-saving measure,” she said, “we need to really insist on looking at the whole picture.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias