Only 19 States, D.C., Mandate Kindergarten. California Might Be Next
California may soon adopt a mandate that requires kids to complete at least one year of kindergarten before moving into first grade. The state's existing law currently doesn't make kindergarten attendance a requirement — instead, kids only need to attend first grade when they're 6-years-old. But with the newly proposed law, California will likely become the 20th state to mandate kindergarten.
Should Senate Bill 70, proposed by California Democratic Senator Susan Rubio, pass, it would take effect in the 2024-2025 school year. The proposed bill specifies that early childhood programs like preschool or transitional kindergarten for 4-year-olds and under won't count toward the full year of kindergarten requirement. However, the law does state that parents can choose to send their kids to public or private kindergarten.
"As a public school teacher for 17 years, I have witnessed the detrimental impact on young students who miss out on fundamental early education," Rubio said, according to ABC News. "The voluntary participation for kindergarten leaves students unprepared for the educational environment they will encounter in elementary school.”
The new California law comes as educators are worried about the impact of school shutdowns due to the pandemic, which led to a larger number of kids missing out on kindergarten. Making kindergarten compulsory could help close some of those widening gaps in education, Rubio argued.
"Kindergarten builds the foundation for future learning," Rubio said, per EdSource. "I know which students missed out on early education within the first five minutes of being in a classroom. That is why it is so important for our young students to get a head start, to have that building block, so they don't have to play a harder game of catch-up when they begin the first grade."
Although most states are required to offer some form of kindergarten, most that offer a program are only part-time, and attendance is not mandatory. Currently, only 19 states and the District of Columbia require kids to attend kindergarten, according to a report by the Education Commission of the States.
A multitude of studies on early childhood education have highlighted the benefits of a robust kindergarten curriculum that includes academics, play, and social time. In addition, there's been anecdotal evidence from experienced first-grade teachers who note a difference in skill level between kids who attended a full-time kindergarten program and those who didn't.
Other studies have shown that kids from low-income families, kids with learning disabilities, or kids who speak a language other than English at home all benefit from the extra time in the classroom offered during kindergarten. In addition, early education can level the academic playing field for kids before they jump into more academically heavy grades.
"What full-day kindergarten does is push up the starting point," said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Cooper led a 2010 review examining the impact of full-day kindergarten. His research showed that kids who enter kindergarten behind the learning curve can make enough progress during the year and go on to start first grade on par with classmates.
Former Governor of California Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2014 that would have mandated kindergarten, saying, “I would prefer to let parents determine what is best for their children rather than mandate an entirely new grade level.”
What’s next for Senate Bill 70 in California? Now that it’s passed the state Senate, the bill is headed to Governor Gavin Newsom's desk, where it’s expected to be signed.