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What time should the school day begin? School start times vary considerably, both across the nation and within individual communities, with some schools beginning earlier than 7:30 a.m. and others after 9:00 a.m. Districts often stagger the start times of different schools in order to reduce transportation costs by using fewer buses. But if beginning the school day early in the morning has a negative impact on academic performance, staggering start times may not be worth the cost savings.

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Another option would be to eliminate tiered busing schedules and have all schools begin at the same time. A reasonable estimate of the cost of moving start times later is the additional cost of running a single-tier bus system. The WCPSS Transportation Department estimates that over the 10-year period from 1993 to 2003, using a three-tiered bus system saved roughly $100 million in transportation costs. With approximately 100,000 students per year divided into three tiers, it would cost roughly $150 per student each year to move each student in the two earliest start-time tiers to the latest start time. In comparison, an experimental study of class sizes in Tennessee finds that reducing class size by one-third increases test scores by 4 percentile points in the first year at a cost of $2,151 per student per year (in 1996 dollars). These calculations, while very rough, suggest that delaying the beginning of the school day may produce a comparable improvement in test scores at a fraction of the cost.

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The data used in this study come from two sources. First, administrative data for every student in North Carolina between 2000 and 2006 were provided by the North Carolina Education Research Data Center. The data contain detailed demographic variables for each student as well as end-of-grade test scores in reading and math. I standardize the raw test scores by assigning each student a percentile score, which indicates performance relative to all North Carolina students who took the test in the same grade and year. The second source of data is the start times for each Wake County public school, which are recorded annually and were provided by the WCPSS transportation department.

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