OLYMPIA – The Legislature will consider a bill this year that would lower the compulsory school age for children from 8 to 5.
Under current state law, parents must send their children to school – whether it be public, private or home-based instruction – starting at the age of 8. While most families opt to send their children to school before then, they are not required to do so.
Washington is the only state with an age requirement that doesn’t kick in until age 8. The other 49 states require education starting anywhere from 5 to 7. Eleven states require students to be in school by age 5. According to nationwide data collected by the Department of Education, in the fall of 2010, 85% of kindergarteners were 5 or 6.
In the eyes of the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, children need to start their education earlier in order to be better prepared for the world.
“We can’t allow ourselves and our children to not have the same head start as those that they will be competing with for jobs in the future,” Wellman said at a Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee hearing last week. “We put so much of a focus on our Early Achievers program understanding that starting early for children with quality education is so important to their futures.”
But to parents who opt to home-school their children, the move would take away their choice and flexibility in educating their children.
Kelly Clark, of Spokane, home-schooled her three children from kindergarten through eighth grade, before transferring them to public school. She said she has talked to parents who have felt pressured to get their children in schools right away. They have been relieved to hear they have flexibility if their children aren’t ready.
“We feel lucky that in Washington state, we have till 8 to choose a path and make things more solid,” Clark said.
Five of Becki Anderson’s six children have been in and out of Spokane Public Schools over the course of their education. While she wouldn’t be directly impacted by the age change, she said her experiences at public schools have her doubting whether younger children should be mandated into formal education.
“There’s a lack of trust, as to how children will be treated as young as 5, that their developmental abilities won’t be respected,” Anderson said. “I’m open to it at a young age. I just feel like there’s just such a lack of trust over what that means.”
Supporters of the bill say sending kids to school earlier is better for their development, and the change still allows families to meet the individual needs of their children.
Ann Van Wig, professor of education at Eastern Washington University, said the state is smart to re-examine when kids should start school. Parents may feel that their children need extra help or support before starting a formal education. But the sooner they are in a structured setting, at a school or in the home, the better they will ultimately develop, she said.
“The more opportunities children have to be in those places that are safe spaces, language-rich, play-structured, social emotional supports, the better it is for the student,” she said.
She said she hopes schools will provide support to home-school parents who need the help. Having families state their education intentions earlier, she said, will help schools better address those needs.
“How do we give those supports if we don’t know the children are out there?” she said.
Public school officials testified in support of the proposal at a Senate committee hearing last Friday.
Martha Rice, president of the Yakima School Board, said many students in her district don’t get exposed to education until they come into their schools. She added only 20% to 25% of their kindergarteners come prepared for grade-level work.
“Maintaining the current mandatory school age at 8 does nothing to relieve this challenge,” Rice said.
Roz Thompson, government relations and advocacy director for the Association of Washington School Principals, said elementary school principals she talked to are ready to work with families to meet their individual needs.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said there would likely be discussion on whether the starting age for kids should be 5 or 6. He agreed that 8 years old should no longer be the standard.
“That is an outlier,” Billig told reporters Monday. “That is too old for sure to be the required age when kids start school.”
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, has personal experience with waiting to send his children to school and says the flexibility should remain with parents. He said his daughter should have gone to school earlier and his family waited to send his son.
“It was the right choice,” Schoesler said at a Tuesday news conference. “It was a choice my wife and I made that proved to be the best for our children. I’d like parents to be able to continue making that choice.”
The bill is currently awaiting a vote in the committee, though one has not yet been scheduled. If it passes the committee, it will be heard by the full Senate. A fiscal note analyzing how much the move would cost the state has been requested, but is not yet available.
Current OSPI rules state that a child wishing to enter kindergarten must be 5 by August 31 of the year of entry.