A long discussed and hard fought bill to make kindergarten mandatory before entering first grade has received increased support in recent weeks, signaling that passage could come later this year.
Senate Bill 70, authored by Senator Susan Rubio (D-Baldwin Park), would require that all children need to complete one year of kindergarten in order to be admitted to first grade at a public school. The kindergarten class would have to be completed at a public or private school, with an exception made for children who have not completed one year of kindergarten but were judged to be ready for first grade by school officials. According to SB 70, the changes would come into effect beginning in the 2022-2023 school year.
The bill was first introduced by Senator Rubio in December 2020, with the first Committee meetings in March 2021. SB 70 slowly made its way through the Senate committees, needing to pass appropriations twice due to amendments added clarifying what kind of kindergartens would be acceptable for admittance. Moved to the inactive file in the summer due to a logjam of bills coming through due to continued delays from COVID-19 bill limitations in previous sessions, SB 70 remained inactive until January when it was brought back and finally passed in the Senate. Ever since then it has been sitting awaiting Assembly committee referrals.
As the wording of the current version has the bill coming into effect for the 2022-2023 school year, the bill may also be given an amendment soon to delay that by a year to give parents and schools more time to get ready for the change.
Senator Rubio wrote the bill because of the wide gap of academic skills prevalent in the classrooms. While some students come into kindergarten and first grade being able to read and with other skills, others, especially those from lower-income families and those hurt by classes delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic come in with fewer of the necessary and needed skills to begin first grade.
“I have witnessed the detrimental impact on young students who miss out on fundamental early education,” said Senator Rubio of her bill. “The voluntary participation in kindergarten leaves students unprepared for the educational environment they will encounter in elementary school. The pandemic has exacerbated this reality.”
The widening gap, as well as the bill running out of time to pass, have pushed many early education advocates in favor of mandatory kindergarten in recent weeks.
“Kindergarten has changed,” explained Kirk Price, an education policy consultant, to the Globe on Monday. “It’s becoming more and more skills oriented and more of a way to build children up to be ready for first grade. But a lot of parents haven’t seen this or can’t afford or deal with their kids going to kindergarten. Part of this is on the parents too, because some don’t read to their kids or expand their education at home or anything like that. Kindergarten is needed to not leave any kids behind.”
Opponents against SB 70
However, despite the growing mandatory kindergarten movement and more in favor of advancing SB 70, opponents have noted that kindergarten needs to remain a choice.
“We already have such high standards for kids, and this required kindergarten wouldn’t do anything,” explained Hector Reynoso, an education observer and student success tracker for several California schools, to the Globe on Friday. “A big part is simply available resources. Many lower-income families work long hours or multiple jobs for their family and simply can’t afford more resources or have the time to spend to enrich education. Even if mandatory kindergarten was there, the lack of parental input would be huge.”
“Many kids also come from non-English speaking households and don’t grow up learning English. Many are watched by Grandparents or other family during the day, many of whom are not well attuned to English. So when they get to the first grade, it can be a sudden English shift from Spanish, so that’s where the problem is for many. Except, not many want to say it because to many it can sound non-inclusive to Latinos then. But really, for many, that’s a big root of the problem.”
“And then the mandate notion of it. A lot of parents simply choose not to have their kids go there as a matter of choice. Around 5% of students don’t go to kindergarten in California, but many of those get home education or pick up enough skills to be ready for first grade. Simply making kindergarten mandatory is not going to fix a lot of this.”
Similar bills in the past that made it past both houses have been vetoed, included 2014’s AB 1444. That year, then-Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it, saying in his veto message that “I would prefer to let parents determine what is best for their children.”
Assembly hearings on SB 70 may come up in the coming weeks as both mandatory kindergarten advocates and opponents watch to see what happens.