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Compulsory kindergarten: Still a bad idea

 Compulsory kindergarten: Still a bad idea
Children in the new Expanded Transitional Kindergarten (ETK) pre-kindergarten clap along with teacher Lisa Harmison during their first day of school at 186th Street Elementary in Gardena, on Aug. 18. (Los Angeles Times)

Kindergarten hasn't been its old self for a long time. After decades of increasing focus on academics, it recently became more standardized as well; the curriculum for California's 5-year-olds is now aligned with the Common Core academic standards. Kindergarten teachers are no longer preoccupied with keeping their squirmy charges from eating paste but rather with teaching them how to count to 100 by ones and by 10s, and write short paragraphs from prompts.

Yet in California and most other states, kindergarten is still optional. Parents can bring their 6-year-olds to school and demand that they be placed in first grade even if they have never been exposed to a classroom or the basic concepts of letters and numbers. It's pretty rare, but it happens — and often, it doesn't work out well, requiring teachers to focus disproportionate time and remedial attention on a single floundering 6-year-old.

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Nevertheless, making kindergarten compulsory for all children, as proposed this year and in the past by the California Teachers Assn., is a bad idea. For one thing, it's very expensive, costing at least $200 million a year, mostly to hire public school teachers. (No wonder the union likes the idea so much.)

Furthermore, it's unnecessary. According to the California Department of Education, 93% of the state's 5-year-olds already attend public kindergarten — about 500,000 children. Others attend private kindergarten and still others go to kindergarten a year later, at age 6, because they weren't developmentally ready the previous year.

In fact, developmental differences are quite wide at this age. Some 5-year-olds are ready, socially and cognitively, for first-grade work, and some 6-year-olds can barely make it in kindergarten, so a mandatory system doesn't really make sense for everyone. And parents have many reasons for keeping their children out of kindergarten, from child-care concerns to a desire to teach their children themselves. Better education policy would make mastery and maturity, not chronological age, the determining factors for grade placement when students enroll in school.

Yet several bills to make kindergarten mandatory have been introduced in recent years at the behest of the teachers union and other groups. All of them would have required California children to begin their formal schooling by age 6, just as in existing law. But while parents currently can enroll their 6-year-olds in kindergarten or first grade, the legislation would have required them to start in kindergarten regardless of their preparation and social skills — in other words, mandating 13 years of formal education instead of 12. All of the bills died; the most recent one (AB 713) was rejected by a state Senate committee Thursday. But supporters have vowed to try again next year.

They should rethink their strategy. Parents shouldn't lose their right to make decisions about their children's education just because the state switched to a Common Core-based curriculum. At the same time, enrolling a child in first grade who is not ready, as can happen under current law, is bad for everyone — the child, the teacher and all the other students in the classroom. There are better ways to address both of these issues. Children who first arrive at public school at age 6 should be placed in the grade that's appropriate for them, through discussions with their parents and a brief screening of the children's abilities. That would be less expensive, more flexible and better for each student academically than a blanket mandatory kindergarten. Being bored by too-easy classroom material can be as bad for children's academic success as feeling overwhelmed by lessons that are too advanced for them.

Putting children in the grade that is appropriate for them also would be in keeping with current law on kindergarten. Even when the state passed a law requiring students to be 5 years old before they started kindergarten, it allowed exemptions for parents who could demonstrate that their children were ready earlier. Why not allow the same for first grade?

Gov. Jerry Brown wisely vetoed a previous attempt to impose mandatory kindergarten for very similar reasons. It would be smarter politically, and educationally, to try a different approach to academic readiness.

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