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lowering Washington mandatory school age

If SB 5020 is turned into law, kids in Washington would be required to start school by age 6.

Senate bill would lower mandatory school age

SB 5020 moved forward despite ample parent opposition

Holding off on sending your child to school for the first time at age 7 or 8? You may not be able to if a bill introduced last week in the Washington State Senate makes it through the current legislative session and into law. Attempts to lower the starting age for school have failed in past legislative sessions.

Lowering compulsory school age

If approved this year, Senate Bill 5020 (SB 5020) would lower the minimum age for compulsory school attendance from 8 years of age to 6. According to the senate bill report, a majority of U.S. states require school attendance by age 5 or 6 and Washington is the only state where kids aren’t required to be in school until age 8. 

During discussion of the bill in the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education committee on January 11, bill sponsor Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-Bellevue) said that “only” status doesn’t jibe with Washington’s education values: 

A leader in early education

“We are a state that has really embraced early learning and understands the impact of early learning,” Wellman said, pointing out Washington researchers and programs pioneers in early education. 

“It seemed as though we should join the rest of the United States to begin our learning, or to specify that we need learning to begin earlier and that we urge parents to begin learning earlier,” Wellman said. “I cannot stress enough how important it is to begin learning as early as possible. Parents are some of the best teachers that a child will ever have but you need to start teaching so that learning takes place.”

Opposition

However, parents who testified were largely opposed to the change.

Julie Barrett, a parent and founder of Conservative Ladies of Washington, expressed consternation that the push to lower the compulsory school age keeps returning to Olympia year after year. 

“We will keep coming back. As a mother of four I can attest that each child is very unique and requires different methods and timing of teaching,” Barrett told lawmakers. “Parents are uniquely qualified to make these educational decisions for their children. For those who want to start early. There are already a lot of early learning programs in place for those who want their children to go to school at 6 years old. There’s nothing stopping them, with very rare exceptions.”

Testing parent decision-making

Parent Leslie Williams said that she understands that Washington state that “is leading the way” in recognizing early childhood developmental needs. 

“I understand that the state superintendent and the legislature feel they have the best interests in mind for the students of Washington and I don’t know of any parents that don’t want what’s best for their child,” Williams said. But, she went on:

“This bill takes away parents’ decisions and choices for their children. Children develop at different rates. This document fails to recognize parents as primary stakeholders in their children’s upbringing. And there are no religious and medical exemptions.”

On to Senate Ways and Means

Even with the objections, SB 5020 was passed of committee on January 19 and moved on to the Senate Ways and Means Committee. If approved there it would head to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Change would impact truancy laws

Along with lowering school entrance age, SB 5020 would align state truancy policies with that change. It would repeal separate truancy policies for kids age 7 and younger and instead include them under Washington’s main truancy law. 

The way children ages 6 and 7 are treated under current truancy laws would be maintained if the measure is passed: If a 6- or 7-year-old child has 7 unexcused absences in a month or 10 unexcused absences in a school year, the parent can be referred to juvenile court. If that happens parents may face sanctions, including daily fines or community service. Children themselves who are ages 6 or 7 cannot be referred to juvenile court themselves or sanctioned for unexcused absences; older children may be referred or sanctioned for truancy. 

New rules for homeschooling parents

The will would make one other significant change to state education law: If passed, homeschooling parents would be required to annually file a declaration of intent to provide their child with home-based instruction and keep certain records beginning when the child is age 6 instead of age 8 as current law stipulates. However homeschooling parents would not be required to administer standardized achievement tests until a child is 8 years old.

To track SB 5020, go to the Crosscut WA Bill Tracker.

More at Seattle’s Child:

“Washington State PTA: Priorities for lawmakers in 2023”

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.