This arrangement dates back to four or five decades ago, and teens’ sleep needs were not on its architects’ minds. Back then, buses were a way of getting kids to school amid new, pedestrian-unfriendly sprawl (most kids used to just walk), but also of assuaging fears that walking to school alone was dangerous. And as many districts bought buses and hired drivers, they kept fleets only as big as absolutely necessary, to save money. Increasing spending on buses and drivers is no small thing when many schools are already dealing with slashed budgets; transportation costs might rank as a lower priority at schools with, say, outdated textbooks or run-down facilities.
Which connects to the third common category of opposition to changing the school day: concerns about funding a longer day. Increasing the amount of time that schools operate each day, as Brown favors, would cost money. She cites this as another reason that changing the school day is difficult. “Our schools haven’t even recovered from the 2008 recession,” Brown says. “More than half of states are funding their school systems at a lower level than they were in 2008.”
Still, she says, there are ways for schools to adapt. As she outlined in a 2016 report, there are a few ways that schools could apply for federal funding to extend the school day under the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. Also, she says schools could have outside enrichment programs step in for a period of the day.
At any rate, many parents already are paying for the fact that the school day ends before the workday, in the form of childcare or extracurriculars. “We’re effectively asking parents right now to subsidize the school day,” Brown said.
There is probably no such thing as a school-day schedule that satisfies every constituency. Keep start times early, and teens don’t get the sleep they need. Make start times later, and people involved in sports and other extracurriculars complain, and transportation costs go up. Keep school days the usual length, and working parents are in a jam. Make school days longer, and both students and teachers might dread the added time. But still, it seems an amended school-day schedule could make a lot of these people collectively less unhappy than they are now.
Kids have to go somewhere while their parents work, and it’s going to get funded one way or another. Ansley Erickson, an associate professor of history and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, told me about another model, from the early-20th century in New York City, when a lot of mothers worked outside the home. “There was a lot more time that kids spent unsupervised, and there were also a lot more intentional spaces in the city where kids could be and be supervised that were not school spaces,” she said. Some of these were private (after-school programs run by churches or community centers) and some were public (libraries; playgrounds staffed with supervisors to watch over children). There are, as history indicates, other ways of looking after kids when they aren’t in classrooms that could serve as a model for reimagining their schedules. It would just take creativity, some reallocating of money, and most of all a collective resistance of inertia.