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Kindergarten could soon be mandatory for California children

California is one step closer to mandating that children attend kindergarten, a requirement that would come after droves of the state’s youngest students skipped the grade during the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened learning gap concerns.

A bill approved by the state Senate late Monday night is headed to the governor’s desk and, if signed, would require children to complete a year of kindergarten before entering first grade, beginning in the 2024-25 school year.

Like most states, California does not require kindergarten as part of its compulsory education laws. California children who are 5 years old are eligible for kindergarten, but are not required by law to attend school until they are 6 years old.

Under SB 70 by Sen. Susan Rubio (D-Baldwin Park), California would join 19 states where kindergarten is not an option but a requirement. The bill specifies that other early education programs, such as transitional kindergarten, which serves 4-year-olds, does not count toward the requirement. Under the bill, students can choose to attend public or private kindergarten.

“This ensures that children receive critical instruction in their earliest years of learning and are properly prepared,” Rubio, a former public school teacher, said on the Senate floor Monday. “For students who have not been enrolled in kindergarten, oftentimes teachers and parents spend way too much time trying to teach foundational skills and their peers are already ahead and have mastered those skills.”

Although kindergarten is already well attended — about 95% of eligible students enrolled before COVID-19, according to the California Department of Education — proponents of the bill said allowing the grade to be optional misleads parents about its benefits.

Early education advocates point to research that shows kindergarten helps form social and academic skills that are key to lifelong development — and those who skip it could fall behind their peers.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is a sponsor of the bill. Supt. Alberto Carvalho said that the district’s youngest students have been among the most challenging to enroll post-pandemic.

“Mandating a full year of kindergarten ensures students receive high-quality academic, social and developmentally appropriate learning experiences,” Carvalho said.

California schools have seen unusual drops in enrollment, with kindergarten making up an outsize share of the decrease. Enrollment in kindergarten declined by 61,000 students in 2020-21, according to state data.

While those data are skewed by the pandemic, as parents opted out during a tumultuous year of distance learning because of virus outbreaks, proponents of the bill said families may think kindergarten is not essential because it’s optional.

Alison Yoshimoto-Towery, L.A. Unified’s chief academic officer, told lawmakers at an Assembly Education Committee hearing in June that low-income families are less likely to opt in to kindergarten. Absentee rates are also disproportionately higher in the grade because families don’t take it seriously, she said.

“Making it compulsory allows the district to reach out, to call, to do home visits, to counsel parents,” Yoshimoto-Towery said. “It closes that opportunity gap earlier.”

The California Homeschool Network opposed the bill, calling it an “unnecessary” mandate that limits choice.

“This new legislation would require them to start in kindergarten regardless of their preparation and social skills — in other words, mandating 13 years of formal education instead of 12,” the group said in a statement of opposition. “Better education policy would consider both mastery and maturity, not chronological age.”

Another bill, AB 1973 by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), aims to require that all school districts offer full-day kindergarten. Right now, some districts offer only part-time programs that last three hours a day.

Although Newsom has made early education a part of his gubernatorial agenda, increasing access to preschool and transitional kindergarten statewide, his Department of Finance opposes the bill due to the cost. A legislative analysis put the estimate for increased state funding in the low hundreds of millions annually based on the assumption that 30,000 more children would enroll in school.

Prior attempts to mandate kindergarten in California have failed. In 2014, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed an identical bill.

“Most children already attend kindergarten, and those that don’t may be enrolled in other educational or developmental programs that are deemed more appropriate for them by their families,” Brown said in his veto message then. “I would prefer to let parents determine what is best for their children, rather than mandate an entirely new grade level.”

Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.

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