Washington’s last-in-the-nation minimum age for compulsory education is antithetical to the state’s values of educating its youngest residents. Lowering the age of compulsory education to age 5 — from age 8 — should be a no-brainer.
Most states require school enrollment by age 5 or 6. Washington offers free public education for all children aged 5 and older, but doesn’t require parents to enroll their children in school, or begin home schooling, until they are 8 years old. That’s the age most youth are entering third grade.
Senate Bill 5537 would require parents to enroll 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds in school. Home schooling parents would need to register their intent to begin instruction at the same age, under the bill filed by Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee Chairwoman Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island.
Washington’s late-start date is an artifact of a different age — set more than 120 years ago, before the link between early learning and academic outcomes was properly understood.
Early learning is particularly important for students of color and those from low-income households. As Yakima School Board President Martha Rice testified in a Friday hearing about the proposal, students who miss out on early educational opportunities can struggle for years to catch up to their peers.
A similar bill filed during the 2013-14 session was supported by The Washington Education Association, Association of Washington School Principals, State Board of Education, Washington State Parent Teacher Association and Washington Association of School Administrators. It was opposed by home schooling parents. Wellman assured such parents Friday that the bill has no “material impact on home schooling.”
Even so, several testified against the proposal arguing that it should be parents’ decision if a child is ready for formal schooling. But, as Wellman, a former teacher, pointed out, the bill does not change parents’ ability to do so. It simply requires them to register intent to home-school at an earlier age.
Other arguments against lowering the attendance age fall equally flat. Washington Homeschool Organization Advocacy Chair Jen Garrison Stuber argued that since the fiscal analysis of a similar previous bill showed that lowering the attendance age would have no financial impact on government operations, it must mean that all 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds were already receiving education. But testimony from other parents disproved this theory. Amy Buchmeyer, Staff Attorney for the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association, argued that since it’s the norm in Washington for students to start schooling earlier, there’s no reason to change the law.
Any student who spends the first eight years without age-appropriate, structured education at home or in a school setting misses out on critical early-learning opportunities. That’s unfair, whether it’s one, 1,000 or 10,000 students who are being left behind.
It’s true that different children learn differently and thrive best in different settings. SSB 5537 does nothing to deny parents’ ability to choose the best fit for their children. Lawmakers should swiftly usher it into law.