Washington state has invested more than $4 billion in K-12 education in recent years to correct deep inequities exposed by the McCleary lawsuit. It has elevated the importance of early education, even to the point of creating a cabinet-level department devoted to its youngest residents.

But a glaring gap remains in Washington’s commitment to what the state constitution describes as its paramount duty. Thanks to a law that dates to 1901, children do not have to enter school till age 8. That’s the latest starting age for compulsory education in the country. That’s right. Washington is dead last.

Free public education begins at age 5 in Washington, but parents don’t have to send their students to school until they are of an age when most students are starting third grade. That’s far too late. Even if most families voluntarily enroll students earlier, the law shortchanges students without access to other early learning programs and perpetuates educational inequities. State lawmakers should lower the age of compulsory education to age 5

School leaders are expecting thousands of new kindergartners who could have entered school last year but whose parents held off because the pandemic-required remote instruction. They won’t know until mid-October exactly how many of this year’s kindergartners are entering school having delayed enrollment, but there are signs the jump will be significant.

Before the pandemic, enrollment had steadily trended upward since at least 2014, as The Seattle Times’ Education Lab has reported. But 2020-21 saw 12,091 fewer kindergartners enrolled than in the previous year — a decrease of 14.6%. It was the largest drop in kindergarten enrollment of 33 states reviewed by The New York Times.

Delayed enrollment is not a new phenomenon. From 2017-19, only about 55% of Washington’s public school students first had enrolled in the state’s schools as 5-year-olds. Another 8.5% started as 6-year-olds. An average of just over 3%, or more than 37,700 students, started at age 8

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The data don’t reveal what kinds of educational opportunities those students may have had before first enrolling in the state’s public school system. Some might have moved here from out of state or attended private school, for example. But even one Washington child who first enters the classroom as an 8-year-old is too many. The link between early childhood education and academic outcomes is well documented, particularly for students of color and from low-income families. And the state has invested in early learning to ensure children get off to a good start in education and life.

“I don’t think it’s in line with the values of Washington state,” University of Washington College of Education Professor Kristen Missall, said of the law. She researches early skill development, school readiness and school transition.

“It’s the responsibility of leaders and policy makers to send a message that we value early childhood education,” said Missall, director of the college’s school psychology program.

No other state starts compulsory education at such a late age. Twenty-six states require 6-year-olds to enroll in school, according to the nonprofit Education Commission of the States. Another dozen start compulsory education at age 5.

Until recently Pennsylvania was Washington’s lone companion in allowing parents to opt out of enrolling 5-, 6- and 7-year-old students. In 2019, state lawmakers there lowered the state’s compulsory age to 6, effective last year.

“Research overwhelmingly suggests an early start to formal schooling can improve language and literacy skills, increase student achievement, enhance social and emotional skill development, and reduce the need for remediation in later years,” Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera testified to state lawmakers considering the proposal.

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Rivera pointed out that later enrollment can especially disadvantage students without access to high-quality preschool and early-childhood education programs or regular access to libraries, computers and nourishing meals.

Washington lawmakers last took up the issue during the 2013-14 session with a bill that would have required school for 6- and 7-year-olds. Now-state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal was one of the bill’s sponsors. It included necessary exemptions for children who were being home-schooled, enrolled in private school, or were excused by the school district superintendent.

The Washington Education Association, Association of Washington School Principals, State Board of Education, Washington State Parent Teacher Association and Washington Association of School Administrators all supported that bill. It passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 74-23, but the Senatefailed to see it through.

This session, lawmakers should correct their mistake.

SIDEBAR: School leaders won’t know until mid-October exactly how many of this year’s kindergartners are entering school having delayed enrollment, but there are signs the jump will be significant.

Before the pandemic, enrollment had steadily trended upward since at least 2014, as The Seattle Times’ Education Lab has reported. But 2020-21 saw 12,091 fewer kindergartners enrolled than in the previous year — a decrease of 14.6%. It was the largest drop in kindergarten enrollment of 33 states reviewed by The New York Times.