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Originally published February 16, 2013 at 7:32 PM | Page modified February 16, 2013 at 10:35 PM

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Legislators look to reduce mandatory school age to 6 years old

A measure gaining support in the Legislature would lower the mandatory school age from 8 to 6, with backers citing the importance of early-childhood education.

The Associated Press

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OLYMPIA — Washington is one of only two states that don’t require kids to start their formal education before turning 8.

A measure gaining traction in the state Legislature would push that age to 6, but a loophole would exempt kids whose parents say they are home-schooled.

Rep. Marcie Maxwell, D-Renton, sponsor of House Bill 1283, said her reason for introducing it is simple: Society has changed since the early 20th century, when the current rules were created, and our laws should reflect that.

“We know today how important early education is,” she said. “Kindergarten, first grade, second grade and beyond are a vital part of all students’ preparation.”

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.

The measure has broad support, including from the state’s Board of Education, the Association of Washington School Principals and the Washington Education Association — the state’s largest teachers’ union.

“We are working toward all-day kindergarten, and yet we have this archaic law on the books that doesn’t require families to send their kids to school until age 8,” said Connie Fletcher, a member of the state’s Board of Education. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Despite widespread backing, however, it is not clear that the bill would do much to address what its supporters acknowledge is the rare occurrence of kids enrolling in school two years behind their peers.

That is because in order to calm fears of home-schooling advocates, the bill would keep current rules in place that don’t require parents to file paperwork declaring their intent to home-school until their kids turn 8.

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 home schooling?

“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.”

Despite the concession to home-schoolers, some remain unhappy with the measure.

Emilie Fogle, chairwoman of the Washington Homeschool Organization, said that there is no evidence that starting kids in school earlier helps them later in life. She fears that an exception made for home-schoolers could be ephemeral.

“An exemption puts us as a second group, and it can be taken away,” she said.

The measure also would alter the law dealing with 6- and 7-year-olds enrolled in school but with frequent absences.

Under current state law, once 6- or 7-year-olds are enrolled in public school, parents are responsible for ensuring they attend class. If a child has seven unexcused absences in a month or 10 in a school year, the school district is required to file a case against the parents in juvenile court.

Under Maxwell’s bill, that statute would be removed from the state code, and truancy laws would be enforced starting at age 8.

The measure now goes to the House Rules Committee.

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