Although Washington State is one of the few in the country where compulsory education doesn't start before age 8, this might change if the new measure currently making its way through the Legislature becomes law. The measure would push the age at which kids would be required to begin school down to 6, but exceptions would be added for families that homeschool.
Representative Marcie Maxwell, who is sponsoring the House Bill 1283, said that the new lower age is reflecting a changed society from the one in which the original age limit was put into place. She said that education experts now recognize the importance of early childhood education to future academic success, and therefore the state should put into place a requirement that each child should get it.
While 33 states require kids to start their education no later than age 6 and 15 states make it mandatory by age 7, only Washington and Pennsylvania don't require kids in the classroom until they turn 8.
The measure was unanimously voted out of the House Education Committee on Thursday.
A number of education groups support the bill, with Association of Washington School Principals and Washington Education Association among them. Connie Fletcher, the member of the state's Board of Education says that there is a disconnect between President Barack Obama's call for universal pre-school for America's kids, and Washington's law not requiring attendance until the age of 8.
However, there's a concern that the bill would not really solve the main problem – which is that there are kids starting schooling 2 years after their peers – because it is allowing too much flexibility in how it deals with homeschoolers. In Washington, the parents don't need to file the intent to home school their kids until their 8th birthday.
What, then, is to stop a parent who doesn't want to enroll his or her 6- or 7-year old from claiming to be homeschooling?
"I suppose you could do that," Maxwell said. "I would hope that everybody is looking out for the best interest of the child. I'd like to give parents the benefit of the doubt."
Still, some home schooling parents and groups representing them feel that protections don't go far enough. Emilie Fogle, who heads the Washington Homeschool Organization, says that by separating out the homeschoolers, the state makes it too easy for that kind of protection to be stripped away.
Opponents also expressed concern about how the measure would deal with chronic truancy. At the moment, 6- and 7-year olds are subject to the same truancy rules as older students, which puts parents who keep their kids home from school at the risk of being brought before the juvenile court. The new bill would exempt kids this young from truancy rules entirely.