There are 82,771 first-graders enrolled in Indiana schools this fall – about 500 fewer students than were enrolled in kindergarten last year. Likewise, there were more first-graders in 2016 than second graders this year. Those numbers don't suggest hundreds of children missing out on early learning.
But educators know there are some who arrive in Indiana classrooms without any formal learning experiences.
“That has created problems for some of our at-risk students,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick. “There is too much on the line academically.”
Which is why the state superintendent wants the General Assembly to change the compulsory school attendance age from7 to 5. While free education is available to all children at age 5, Indiana is one of just 15 states that doesn't require students to enroll in school before age 7 or 8.
The fiscal note on an unsuccessful bill to change the compulsory school age filed in the last session references parents “forced” to enroll their children and parents who “prefer” to start their children at a later date. It claimed a minimum cost of $6.2 million in the first year.
Compulsory kindergarten won't compromise the rights of any parents who home-school their children. But it can be a powerful boost for the at-risk children McCormick cites, as well a strong signal that Indiana values early learning.
A review by the Education Commission of the States last month found 10 states and the District of Columbia require students to attend school at age 5. Massachusetts – the nation's top-performing state in K-12 education – doesn't require attendance until age 6 but makes a free education available to all at age 3.
“Lowering the age requirement for compulsory attendance ensures that students have access to the social, emotional and cognitive exposure and learning they need to be successful in future years,” writeresearchers Louisa Diffey and Sarah Steffers in the Education Commission of the States review.
Objections to kindergarten at age 5 often come from college-educated parents worried about their children's maturity level. Some choose to “redshirt” their children for a year – to borrow a sports term – allowing them to grow physically and behaviorally before entering school. But their children are more likely to benefit from other opportunities – a high-quality preschool program, trips to zoos and museums, books and toys that promote learning.
It's children without those learning experiences who need teachers trained in developmentally appropriate instruction. State requirements for compulsory education could ensure at-risk children are off to a strong start.
Indiana lawmakers should heed the state superintendent's call for this small but important change to Indiana education law.