In California, all 5-year-olds could be starting school by 2011 if a bill by Assemblyman Gene Mullin for mandatory kindergarten passes, but home school advocates argue it decreases beneficial parent contact time with children.
Mullin, D-South San Francisco, proposes raising the minimum age to enter kindergarten from 5 years old by Dec. 2 to 5 years old by Sept. 1 and requiring those children to attend school. Current law doesn’t require students to attend school until age 6, making kindergarten optional. At this point, about 8 percent of students in California don’t attend kindergarten, said Mullin. He hopes his bill — which will be discussed in the education committee today — will give more students a strong educational foundation. The bill is Assembly Bill 1236.
"It’s required for school districts to offer kindergarten but it’s not required for parents to take them,” he said.
Opponents, on the other hand, argue there isn’t evidence that starting children in school earlier will be beneficial in the long run. Also, they argue the requirement will be a financial burden to parents opting for private school.
Starting children before they turn 5 years old means some may not be at the maturity level needed for structured school. Students can currently begin kindergarten as early as 4 and a half years old. Under the proposed program, children who are just shy of making the deadline could have the option of attending a kindergarten readiness course that is more structured than regular preschool, said Mullin.
"We think all children deserve access to a preschool program. This puts the access of it front and center before the legislation bringing up the conversation of the need to invest really in preschool-aged children and the skills needed for the foundation of reading and writing,” said Preschool California President Catherine Atkin.
The ambitious plan would go into effect for the 2011-2012 school year offering ample time to develop a plan to fund the various programs. Mullin hopes to use the windfall of money California anticipates having due to decreasing enrollment and the state-mandated allocation for student attendance.
Mullin’s bill is similar to, but more far reaching than Assembly Bill 683 proposed by Sharon Runner, D-Antelope Valley, which plans to have the Sept. 1 deadline fully implemented by the 2009-2010 school year. Last year, Runner proposed a bill for mandatory kindergarten which was passed in both houses but died in appropriations.
"My bill just moves the start date of kindergarten to make sure children are 5 when they start. Kindergarten is more academic than it was when I went to kindergarten. It’s really the new first grade,” she said.
While Runner agreed the older children tend to be more prepared for class, she’s not sold on the addition of the readiness courses. The addition of preschool options would be a costly plan for California taxpayers, she said, adding the windfall income might not last as long as the bills for such a program.
Two home school advocate groups are also opposing the mandatory entrance into school at 5 years old. Roy Hanson, an advocate for Private and Home Educators of California and Home School Legal Defense Association, explained in an advocacy e-mail that the bill would cut an extra year of development outside of school with their parents.
In addition, he wrote the early entrance means an extra year of paying for private school for families who choose that route.
Despite the complaints, the bills focusing on early education have the support of many state and local groups as well as education advocates.
"California’s high academic standards have resulted in an evolution of kindergarten into a rigorous academic environment that prepares children to succeed in later grades. To succeed in kindergarten, children must be prepared to learn, and they must be developmentally ready to take on the challenges of our state standards. AB 1236 will help prepare all students for these challenges and make sure they are ready for kindergarten,” said CTA President Barbara Kerr, who will be speaking on behalf of the bill today. "It will provide all California children with an equal opportunity to succeed.”
Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.