Denying an important school choice


Kindergarten is one of the biggest issues of the legislative session. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval wants to expand full-day programs into more schools at some expense. The Legislature’s majority Democrats want to expand full-day programs into all Nevada elementary schools at far greater expense.

When lawmakers finally start horse-trading over tax increases, those discussions will be driven largely by kindergarten, and how to pay for it.

Senate Bill 182 had its first hearing Monday, before a joint meeting of the Senate and Assembly education committees. It’s the Democrats’ bill to make full-day kindergarten mandatory, even at schools with half-day programs that offer tuition-based full-day alternatives. Debate on this part of the bill focused on whether full-day kindergarten improves students’ core proficiencies, and whether any achievement gains stick beyond a few years.

But there’s another significant provision buried deep in SB 182, one that drove several parents to testify against it. The bill strikes from Nevada law parents’ option to enroll their children in kindergarten at age 6, or to skip kindergarten entirely and enroll their children in first grade at age 7, and it mandates that all children who turn 5 before Sept. 30 enroll in full-day kindergarten that year.

As written, the bill is a stunning attack on parental choice and judgment. Reducing the compulsory age has consequences beyond kindergarten.

“It means home schoolers will have to file to home school at age 5, instead of age 7,” said local parent Elissa Wahl, who organized testimony against SB 182. “Not everyone has made up their mind by age 5 about the suitability of any educational option, including home schooling. This adds additional pressure for parents to make a choice, and maybe to make it before they, or their child, are ready.”

This isn’t the idea of Nevada lawmakers. Other school systems already have imposed this unpopular rule. Not surprisingly, their reasons for doing something so unfair are rooted in the egalitarian idea of “fairness.”

Across the country, the education establishment is plotting crackdowns on “redshirting,” the increasingly popular practice of delaying enrollment in public school by one year. Doing so allows children — especially those with summer birthdays — to mature and be among the oldest in their class instead of the youngest. The issue has been getting more attention thanks to a “60 Minutes” report last year, which put a lot of the blame for increased redshirting on the best-selling Malcolm Gladwell book, “Outliers: The Story of Success.”

The book uses hard numbers to prove the concept of “cumulative advantage,” which holds that if you get a slight advantage when you’re 6 years old, you’ll be better positioned when you’re 8, 12, 16, and into adulthood. As part of his study, Gladwell found that Canadian junior hockey stars were overwhelmingly born in the first half of the year, and he attributed that to the age-group birthday cutoff of Jan. 1. All these young hockey studs were always among the oldest in their junior leagues.

“In academics, we see the same effect,” Gladwell said on “60 Minutes” last March. “The kids who are born closest to the cutoff date, who are the, relatively speaking, the eldest in their class, have a small but not insignificant advantage, not just in first grade, but throughout their schooling history.”

Kindergarten redshirting has more than tripled over the past 40 years. But what really has a lot of people on the left wringing their hands about it is the demographic trend. Redshirting is an option primarily exercised by the parents of white, middle- to upper-class boys.

Some families decide they simply can’t wait another year to start their kids in school. Child care is expensive. Some parents want to return work (assuming they can find a job). Meanwhile, other parents decide that holding their boy back will increase his chance of getting a college athletic scholarship. Whatever their reasons, they have a choice. But several Nevada lawmakers want that choice taken away.

“This bill addresses an inequity in our school system and better prepares our children for the future,” state Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, and Assemblywoman Marilyn Dondero Loop, D-Las Vegas, wrote in a jointly signed email message. “Nevada ranks 45th in kindergarten enrollment. Additionally, our current system only allows some children, including those whose parents can afford it, to develop early fundamentals of learning. It is grossly inequitable. To implement a ‘read by three’ requirement that all parties support, [requiring students to pass a reading proficiency test in the third grade to advance to the fourth grade], it is essential that children are enrolled in high quality home, private or public educational programs by age 5.”

But studies show the opposite is true. Delaying kindergarten enrollment can lead to better outcomes.

My wife and I just made this very decision. We recently enrolled our son for kindergarten. He’ll be 6 when he starts school in August. We don’t have delusions of him becoming an athletic superstar or a popular leader of his classmates, and we didn’t make the decision because we think he’ll have an edge over other kids at their expense. After much thought and consultation with others — including educators — we simply decided he wasn’t ready for kindergarten at age 5. Based on his development since this summer, we believe we made the right call.

The decision of when a child starts school belongs to parents, not school districts, not states.

“From a family standpoint, a parent’s standpoint, if this bill is left as is, without an amendment, parents have zero options for their children if their child isn’t ready for school at age 5,” Wahl said. “They are hearing from teachers how so many kids are coming in ‘not ready’ and are mistakenly thinking schools are the answer to all the problems.”

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. He will return to KXNT News Radio’s “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” at 4 p.m. March 11, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.