Another attempt by legislators to lower the minimum school age in the state has failed. 

Washington currently has the highest compulsory school age in the nation, age 8. Had the bill passed in its original form, it would have lowered the requirement to 5 years old, effectively mandating kindergarten for all kids either in a public, private or home-schooled setting. 

The bill was opposed by home schooling families. After hearing their concerns, state Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island — one of the bill’s sponsors and chair for the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee — proposed to amend the bill to instead lower the age to 6. 

The bill, SB 5537, was ultimately referred to the Senate Ways & Means Committee after a Jan. 28 majority vote of the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee. But it did not get the second committee vote it needed to get off the Senate floor. 

In an emailed response this week, Wellman said her proposal to change the compulsory age to 6 years brought more of her colleagues and others in the education field on board. But some home-schooling families still opposed the measure, saying the current age gives them flexibility about when to file paperwork for their children to begin learning from formal curricula.  

“While I was saddened to see the death of this student-focused piece of legislation, I am committed to working with colleagues and stakeholders to bring this forward next year as many youngsters are not getting the start they deserve,” the senator said. 

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Several home-schooling families who testified before the Education Committee said having until age 8 to declare a formal learning pathway gives families the option to have their kids start when they’re developmentally, socially and emotionally ready. 

Jen Garrison Stuber, advocacy chair for the Washington Homeschool Organization board, testified against the bill. She disagreed with Wellman, who said that the bill only requires parents to declare where a student would be registered for school. Garrison Stuber said the proposed change would also require families to make sure they are eligible to home-school, to plan curricula to teach the 11 core subjects the law requires and to keep records, including assessments. 

Some studies point to improved outcomes for kids who receive preschool education, especially kids of color and kids living in poverty. But Garrison Stuber said new research indicates that not all preschool and early elementary programs are developmentally appropriate and deliver long-term benefits. 

Some home-schooling families who testified for the bill said their younger children benefited from having more unstructured play time and the freedom to focus on different subjects at different times. When they’re undeclared, families don’t have to worry about satisfying all the core requirements at once. 

Garrison Stuber described SB 5537 as “a bill looking for a problem.” 

“Everyone who wants to be in public school is already there,” she said. 

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When Yakima School Board President Martha Rice testified in support of the bill, she cited her district as being in an “early education desert” where there is a high rate of poverty and large population of students who don’t speak English, and where the majority of children arrive in kindergarten underprepared and unable to learn at a grade level. 

While the bill would have brought Washington in closer alignment with other states with lower compulsory school ages, it didn’t propose additional funding or resources to support early and elementary learning.

Twelve other states begin requiring formal schooling at age 5, and 26 states start at age 6, including Oregon and California. The remainder start at 7 years old. Pennsylvania’s compulsory age was once the same as Washington’s, but in 2019 lawmakers there bumped it down to 6 years old.