Where Is Kindergarten Mandatory?

The value of kindergarten goes well beyond learning early academic skills. Kids also develop cognitive, physical, and social and emotional skills, such as problem-solving, sharing and making friends.

“I see that social aspect of children being with other children and learning all of the skills that I feel like we need to be successful as adults,” says Gracie Branch, associate executive director of professional learning at the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “Especially with children being at home and quarantining during the coronavirus pandemic, some of those skills that we would’ve taken for granted now really need to be taught to kids.”

The majority of states require school districts to offer either full- or half-day kindergarten, however less than half actually mandate student attendance. California was the most recent state to propose legislation that would require kindergarten enrollment, but the bill was vetoed in September 2022 by Governor Gavin Newsom, who cited cost as a factor.

Early-childhood enrollment declined significantly due to COVID-19. From 2019 to 2020, enrollment of kindergartners in public schools dropped by 9%, according to preliminary data from the National Center for Education Statistics. However, those numbers have started to rebound, with enrollment rising by 5% in fall 2021 compared to the prior year.

[Read: What Do Kids Learn in Kindergarten?]

Where Is Kindergarten Required?

Nineteen states, plus Washington, D.C., require kids to attend kindergarten, according to the most recent data from the Education Commission of the States, an agency that tracks educational policies. The map below shows each state’s kindergarten attendance policy. There are exceptions to these policies. In states like Louisiana and Nebraska, for instance, children may skip kindergarten if they’re able to demonstrate readiness through an assessment before entering first grade.

New Jersey, on the other hand, has district requirements rather than a statewide mandate. Children are required to attend full-day kindergarten in the state’s 31 School Development Authority Districts, previously known as the Abbott districts — a group of school districts in low-income areas that receive designated state aid.

But experts say it’s not enough for states to just mandate attendance.

“Just because you’re mandating kindergarten doesn’t mean it’s going to be the quality, wonderful, genuine and joyful experience for young children that it should be,” Branch says. “You need to make sure that you provide the funding to have the best resources in place, including teachers who know about child development and can provide those quality experiences for students. Because it’s hard to require something new and then not put some money and resources behind it.”

However, funding for kindergarten programs is not always available in every district or state. Some states fund kindergarten in the same way as other grades, while others only provide funding for half-day kindergarten programs, according to New America, a public policy organization.

“Until we, as a country, come to grips with this notion of investment for our kids, then we can start having some more dynamic conversations on what works and what doesn’t work so that the playing field is truly that education is the great equalizer,” says Maria Armstrong, executive director of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents. “We’re seeing in far too many communities where that is not the case. And so if we’re going mandate kindergarten, it needs to be equally funded to be able to thrive.”

[READ: Getting Ready for Kindergarten.]

Kindergarten Enrollment Requirements

Requirements differ by districts or states. But to enroll in kindergarten, kids typically need to be 5 years old before the designated cut-off date — which is usually between July and September.

Other than confirming residency and minimum age, “children who want to come to kindergarten, can come to kindergarten” at public schools, Branch says. Private schools, on the other hand, may have different requirements, including a screening or assessment.

Public schools may also have screenings, but “it’s not to keep any student out,” she says. “Primarily they are to gauge where students are in their skill level to make sure that their teacher is aware of where that child is developmentally.”

Parents who believe their child is not developmentally ready may choose to “redshirt” or delay their entry to kindergarten for a year, or enroll their child in transitional kindergarten, which provides a bridge between home or preschool and elementary school, if it’s offered.

Half-Day vs. Full-Day Kindergarten

Forty-one states plus Washington, D.C., require districts to offer some type of kindergarten, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. In 21 states, districts are only required to offer half-day programs.

A common argument against full-day kindergarten is that a full school day is too much for young kids to handle. But experts say that, while curriculum varies, kids in full-day kindergarten programs have more time to play and participate in enrichment activities like music or physical education, while a half-day program may be a little more academically focused due to the limited time.

[READ: What Parents Need to Know About Social-Emotional Development.]

Perhaps more significantly, half-day programs are “widely out of sync with the needs of most working families,” says Dan Wuori, senior director of early learning at The Hunt Institute, a North Carolina-based nonprofit aimed at improving education policy. “Accommodating a two and a half hour school (day) is really a challenge for most working families. And in states that have not mandated full-day programs, it may truly be the barrier that is keeping some children from meaningfully participation in kindergarten.”

One study found that children who attended full-day programs performed better on tests of academic achievement by the end of the school year than children who attended only half-day programs.

But full-day kindergarten is only compulsory in 17 states and Washington, D.C., according to data from the Education Commission of the States. And it often comes with a price tag for parents — even at some public schools — due to a lack of state funding.

Timberlane Regional School District in New Hampshire, for instance, charged $4,500 in 2021-2022 for full-day kindergarten. Private school fees can be much higher. Moravian Academy in Pennsylvania, for example, charged $24,128 in 2022-2023 for kindergarten at its downtown campus.

Financial aid and scholarships may be available to families to cover some or all of kindergarten costs.

Some districts and states in recent years are moving toward eliminating kindergarten tuition. Denver Public Schools, a district that previously charged tuition based on income, announced that full-day kindergarten would be free for families beginning in 2019-2020.

“There’s this big question around the equitable distribution of full-day kindergarten,” Wuori says. “Many states that operate half-day programs make available to parents, on more of a tuition basis, the opportunity to extend that to a full day. Which in those instances, makes it much more likely that the affluent families are going to access a full-day program than the children who may need and benefit from those programs the most.”

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.

More from U.S. News

What is Transitional Kindergarten?

How Parents Can Help Kindergarten Readiness

What Should a First Grader Know?

Where Is Kindergarten Mandatory? originally appeared on usnews.com

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