Kindergarten for all comes of age

Bills would make kindergarten compulsory

For being so young, kindergarteners have incited more than their share of quarrels in California. State lawmakers and governors argued for a decade about how old kindergarten students should be, before voting in 2010 to raise the age to five. At the same time, they created Transitional Kindergarten (TK) for those who miss the new cutoff. Gov. Brown is currently trying to repeal the TK component.

Then there’s been the ongoing debate among experts over full-day versus part-day kindergarten, and how much play time in either the short or long day ought to be given over to real academics. The 3 R’s are winning.

Now, flying in a bit under the radar are two bills that would make kindergarten attendance mandatory in California. That kindergarten isn’t already required might surprise some people, but only 16 states and Washington, D.C. require kindergarten. Like California, New York is considering a change in its law. What is required in California is that school districts offer kindergarten; it’s up to parents whether to send their children or wait until first grade to start them in school. Not surprisingly, the bills are causing people to take sides in the schoolyard.

Last week, in a party line vote, the Assembly Education Committee approved AB 2203, by Assemblymember V. Manuel Pérez (D-Coachella), which would lower the age that California kids must start school from 6 to 5. Tomorrow, the same committee is scheduled to vote on AB 1772, introduced by Assemblymember Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo). Her bill has a slightly different take on the idea. Rather than changing the compulsory education age, AB 1772 makes kindergarten a mandatory prerequisite for enrolling in first grade.

“Ultimately, there is overwhelming evidence that indicates the earlier we start to educate our children, they’re going to be better off, they’re going to be more successful,” Assemblymember Pérez told the committee last week.  “The focus of kindergarten, what students are expected to learn, has changed significantly in the last fifteen years.”

Today’s youngest students are learning to read, do simple math and even understand scientific concepts, like knowing that water can change back and forth from a liquid to a solid state.  “In essence, it’s the new first grade,” San Francisco kindergarten teacher Catherine Sullivan testified at last week’s committee hearing.

Although it’s voluntary, kindergarten is very popular in California.  According to the state department of education, nearly 472,000 of eligible children attended public or private kindergarten last year – somewhere between 90 to 95 percent.  But elementary school teachers say those 25,000 to 50,000 children who don’t attend are at a serious disadvantage.

There’s still an emphasis in kindergarten on developing children’s socialization and behavior, and that’s especially important for Pam Makovkin’s students.  She teaches first and second grade special education students at Anderson Elementary in San Jose’s Oak Grove School District.  “These kids need to be taught regular school relationships, social relationships, what the expectations are at school; you have to sit, you have to listen,” said Makovkin.  “If they don’t know that when they get to me they have a really difficult time.”

It’s nearly as difficult for students in regular education classes.  Luke Allen has two to three students a year in his first grade class at Anderson Elementary who didn’t attend kindergarten. They’re still learning the alphabet while the rest of the class is learning to read.  It’s a common topic of discussion among first grade teachers, said Allen.  “Teachers are frustrated by how that leaves the students disadvantaged.”

Organized opponents

The bills seem to have caught some education advocates off guard.  The California School Boards Association just started querying its members last week.  As of yesterday, the California Kindergarten Association hadn’t seen the bills.  And the Association of California School Administrators will be discussing it at next week’s board meeting.

But it’s not an entirely new issue in California.  As far back as 1997, a similar measure failed in the Senate Education Committee.  Another bill never made it out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee in 2008.  In between, former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill and, in his veto message, gave opponents of AB 2203 and AB 1772 some key talking points.

“I believe parents should retain the right to choose an education program for their 5-year old children,” wrote Davis.  Assemblymember Chris Norby (R-Fullerton), a member of the Education Committee, read that sentence aloud at the hearing.  Those are the words of Gray Davis when he vetoed an identical bill, said Norby, “and I think they’re words that we should heed today.”

“Democrats take away parental freedom:  mandatory kindergarten bill passes Democrat-controlled committee in California,” warned a headline in last Friday’s issue of the online publication, All Right Magazine (subtitled all right, all the time).

“Our parental rights and home school freedoms in California are under attack in an unprecedented way this year,” wrote the Home School Legal Defense Association in an E-lert on its website.

Assemblymember Buchanan’s bill attempts to address this concern by requiring kindergarten but leaving it up to parents to decide if they should enroll their child at age five or six.  “This is because there are situations in which a child may benefit by delaying enrollment until the next school year when that child is better prepared (developmentally, socially or in other ways) for Kindergarten,” Buchanan wrote in an email.  “We believe parents, often with input from teachers and other professionals, should have the ability to make that decision.”

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  1. Can someone explain to me why this is a problem that needs to be addressed with legislation? Are there really scores of kids who are not attending kindergarten because it is not compulsory? Has anyone investigated the cases of kids not attending kindergarten and assessed why?
    As far as kids arriving for first grade unready, can’t we simply give the school discretion on placement in kindergarten versus first grade? Legislating based on an anecdote of a teacher who had a first grader who was behind and hadn’t done kindergarten ignores that there are probably also many first graders who are homeschooled for kindergarten and are perfectly ready for first grade. Why not give the teachers/schools discretion to assess the child in front of them and place the child where there is the best fit? I promise you you can’t tell from Sacramento.

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  2. Probably because teachers aren’t psychometricians and consider how many parents will “appeal” if the teacher doesn’t come up with the answer that the parents want.

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  3. Is there something wrong with an appeal or an on-site assessment?
    I don’t understand how the answer to “a few parents may be difficult” is “Let’s remove flexibility for everyone so we don’t have to deal with people because it gave us a sad once.”

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  4. Actually I think most parents would not want assessments at kindergarten, and being satisfied with the results is probably only one of the reasons. Personally I think laws like this are more a reaction to the expectation that schools fix everything. As long as that is the expectation I thiSchade educational system will try to reduce the amount of outside influences by mandating more to be in their control. Not only this is an example of that but so are things like the increased focus on pre-K intervention. it’s not like this is happening in a vacuum.

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  5. I was thinking of assessments at first grade for kids with no kindergarten experience. It could be pretty informal. If you’re seeing purported first graders who don’t know the alphabet, that seems a pretty easy screen to do.
    Wouldn’t most schools already do this, if say you had a home schooled child who was coming in at 3rd grade?

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  6. I think once you tell parents the result of the assessment would determine whether the child ends up in K or 1st, it wont matter how formal or informal it is. :-)
    btw, in some cases, this kind of assessment is already done at the pre-school level. In the pre-school we attended, people came in to ‘assess’ the likelihood for the child being ready/successful for Kinder. This was more emotional, communication and confidence-based, but there were some skills-based items as well. The results were only for parent informational purposes, but it was a bit nerve-racking nonetheless, especially given that it was done about 6 months before the child would be starting in school (at that age a lot can change in 6 months).
    Anecdotally speaking, it seems the kids whose parents decide to hold them out for a year are generally the ones that are more likely to succeed in school anyway, so Im not sure that the goal to somehow mandate more in-time school will help the cause, in fact, it may do just the opposite if the anecdote is true in general.
    I also think there is an important distinction between ‘educating early’ and assigning a child to a cohort by entering Kinder. The former is clearly beneficial. The latter may work against the freedom to do the former properly.

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  7. Everyone has raised so many issues and I’m going to try to provide some additional information that may be of help.
    Parents can appeal a school district’s decision not to allow their child into kindergarten if that child falls below the new age cutoff for kindergarten.  Under state Ed code, however, school districts aren’t bound to accept an appeal.  With TK, districts might be less motivated to grant appeals.
    As of now, TK is the law.  Gov. Brown’s budget proposal to maintain the new minimum age for kindergarten but get rid of TK failed to pass senate and assembly committees over the past couple of weeks.  The Governor can still include his proposal in the May revise or use it as a bargaining chip during the back room budget negotiations.
    One of the reasons that State Sen. Joe Simitian included TK in his bill to raise the kindergarten age is because of the new academic rigor of kindergarten.  I’m sure there will continue to be disagreement about the impact on young children of having to hit the books before they can read them, it’s not likely that the public school kindergarten curriculum will return to the days of building bridges out of wet sand and playing dress up.
    If a child was homeschooled for kindergarten and that program met the state’s guidelines, then that child would be eligible to enter a public school first grade class under Assm. Buchanan’s bill and would meet the five year old compulsory education requirement of Assm. Perez’s bill.   Although homeschool advocates are fighting the measures, neither bill outlaws homeschooling.
    One other issue that I didn’t mention in the article is that kindergarten teachers see a not insignificant number of their students come and go throughout the year.  Because kindergarten isn’t mandatory, parents can pull their children out for weeks or months without any repercussions.  You can’t be truant if the law says you don’t have to be in school.  The school, on the other hand, loses the ADA funds while the child is out, and when those students return to class after an extended leave, they’re far behind their classmates.

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  8. Interesting.  AB 2203 is more than just requiring kindergarten, it also means parents can’t delay children either.

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  9. The California Department of Education (CDE) estimates that between 90-95% of pupils eligible for kindergarten actually attend kindergarten; leaving approximately 25,000 to 52,000 kids that do not attend kindergarten. The legislative analysis I quote is available online here:
    I don’t think legislation would be useful here and oppose mandatory Kindergarten (I am the parent of some of the kids that do not attend Kindergarten and they would not not benefit from being forced early into school.) I do think the 90-95% that are in Kindergarten now would benefit from some improvements to the Kindergarten program. I think it is clear that the schools need help, but I don’t see this as positive change or worth spending time and money on with things in bad shape. Governor Davis vetoed a similar bill ”
    “I commend the author for his interest in early childhood education.
    However, I am concerned that this bill would unduly restrict a parent’
    s or guardian’s education choices for their children, I believe
    parents should retain the right to choose an education program for
    their 5-year old children.”

    He mentions some studies. Be good to look at those.

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  10. Kathryn, Thank you for all the information. Can I ask for even more clarity? :) You say that under Buchanon’s bill if my child stays home during Kindergarten years he could be assessed for first grade and meet the 5YO compulsory education requirement. How does that work?

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  11. One more question, Kathryn, if you have the chance.
    In the analysis there is a mention made of a disproportionate bad effect of delaying Kindergarten on some populations. Could this problem be better addressed by reaching out to those people about the benefits of Kindergarten and the potential harm of not being in school early? Outreach might be more and more properly persuasive than compulsion. At least it would be in my neighborhood! And it wouldn’t have the negative affect on families whose kids don’t benefit from early or earlier Kindergarten (like mine, though we did try!)
    “The impact of kindergarten on the achievement gap between
    certain populations of students supports the importance of
    kindergarten attendance. Once 2010 research study reported
    that, ‘Hispanic children, non-English speakers, children from
    immigrant households, and children of low socioeconomic status
    benefit the most from the increased availability of
    kindergarten. Hispanic children with access to kindergarten are
    17% less likely to be below grade for their age and earn wages 5% higher as adults.”
    I mean, that is worrisome but I don’t quite see compulsory Kindergarten as the first best tool in the toolkit to help these families or our struggling schools. I am not quite convinced that the benefits are clear enough to merit going for the whole 100% – if it helps most kids, let’s get most kids there. If it doesn’t help all kids, compulsion has a pretty dark side.
    Thanks for an excellent article and lots to think about.

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  12. Caryn,
    Buchanan’s bill actually requires kindergarten as a prerequisite for first grade.  It doesn’t change the minimum age for compulsory education in California, as Perez’s bill does. What that means is that parents can wait until their children are six to enroll them in kindergarten.
    SB 1381, which the legislature passed in 2010, moves up the kindergarten entry age from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1, phasing it in over three years.  By the 2014-15 school year, children will have to have turned 5 on or before Sept. 1 to enroll in public kindergarten.  That bill also created transitional kindergarten for the children born between Sept 1 and Dec. 1 who will no longer be eligible for kindergarten because they’re too young.
    State education code allows parents to seek exemptions allowing a so-called “young 5″ to enroll in kindergarten if the child will turn five during that academic year.  School districts make these decisions on a case-by-case basis; some districts have policies of no early enrollment.  I will check with Assemblymember Buchanan’s office to see if districts would still be permitted to determine, on a case-by-case basis, if a child can skip kindergarten and be placed directly in first grade and will post the answer here.

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  13. Thank you for checking up, Kathryn. I remain curious about the reasons parents aren’t enrolling their kids in kindergarten and wonder if this bill is the best way to support those kids.

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  14. Kathryn i want to know if its a law that my kids go into the tk program acording to the law the cut off date is Nov.2 but my school distric pushed it over to Sept.2 and my kids teachers tell me not to allow them to got to tk because it will retain them in learning more what could i do I want them both going into Kindergarten? Please help if you can

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  15. Update:  This is from Assemblymember Buchanan’s office regarding parents seeking to have their child skip kindergarten and go directly into first grade:
    Currently, In accordance with Ed Code and Regulations, a child who is admitted to Kindergarten may skip up to first grade if he/she meets certain criteria and with parental consent, at the discretion of the school administration, as long as the child is five years old.  (Cal. Ed. Code section 48011 and 5 Cal. Code Regs. Section 200).  This provision would not be altered by AB 1772.

    Vaneza, regarding TK, there is no legal requirement to send your child to Transitional kindergarten.  Neither of the mandatory kindergarten bills would change that.  My understanding of the state law that created TK is that school districts may NOT change the age of kindergarten enrollment unilaterally.  Under Sen. Simitian’s TK bill, SB 1381 – which is law – there is a three-year phase in of the minimum age requirement.  For the 2012-13 school year, children must turn five on or before Nov. 1, for 2013-14 it’s Oct. 1, and for 2014-15 it’s Sept. 1.  In addition, under Simitian’s bill, district MUST offer TK for the children who are no longer old enough for traditional kindergarten.  Gov. Brown has tried to eliminate TK from the budget, but committees in the state senate and assembly rejected the Governor’s proposal.
    If your district is violating the law, you should contact the state department of education.

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  16. Probably what is happening to Vaneza’s district is that very reasonably, they don’t run enough kindergartens to fill a TK with only one month’s worth of birthdays. (Most schools don’t run 12 kindergartens.) Thus, they’ve designated one class to be TK and are putting all the youngest kids in it until it fills.
    Each district is going to do this differently. Vaneza, certainly you can and should advocate for your kids and get them a placement that makes sense for you. But, I would not necessarily assume the TK will be bad for your kids. I send my best wishes that your kids have a great year that suits them and pleases you whatever the label may be.
    Our school will have only one TK aged child next year, and so the class will be “combined” into TK/K, and highly individualized… which is exactly how this school ably runs Kindergarten every year.

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  17. el is correct.  Each district has to make TK available, but there is no single model.  A number of smaller districts may decide to have one TK class for all the kids in the district or to do TK/K splits and essentially have the TK children stay in that class for two years with differentiated instruction by age.

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  18. I wouldn’t have a problem with the legislature making kindergarten attendance a mandatory requirement for enrollment in public school first grade. The problem I have with this law is that it interferes with the right of private schools (including families who homeschool by setting up their own single-family private school) to operate as they choose. State regulations are much more stringent for private schools offering kindergarten than those that start in 1st grade. That is why most homeschoolers do not file the private school affidavit until the year their child turns 6. Nearly all do informal kindergarten teaching with their 5 year olds. They just don’t want to be subject to regulations that aren’t at all relevant to a single-family private homeschool.

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  1. The Educated Guess: Kindergarten for all comes of age in CA : SCOE News Reader
  2. Mandatory kindergarten on the way? - City-Data Forum

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