The Washington Times
April 3, 2006

Washington Times Op-ed—Compulsory Attendance Deserves F

by J. Michael Smith
HSLDA President

Every year, in state legislatures across the country, numerous bills are introduced aiming to lower the compulsory attendance age for children to enter school and lowering the age for state-funded kindergarten. These types of bills have been introduced this year in Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina and South Dakota.

The argument for placing increasingly younger children into school is that it will improve academic attainment. It is believed that because of their early entrance, the children will be ready to learn when they enter the formative years of education. The idea of preschool is not original to the United States. In Europe, where governments provide care and schooling for children as young as 1 year, billions of dollars are spent on these programs designed to give children a head start in their education and socialization. Questions are now being raised, however, whether early entrance into school actually accomplishes the desired purpose.

In 2000, the Program for International Study Assessment (PISA) compared the academic scores of children from 32 industrialized nations in reading literacy, mathematics and science. The results showed that children who have to start school at a very young age do not consistently outperform those who start later.

In a 1999 study reporting the Third International Mathematics and Science results (TIMS) for the eighth grade, a comparable result was found. Despite having a compulsory attendance age of 7, which is later than almost any other European country, Finland held the top ranking in all test subjects.

Singapore, which also scored high in the PISA and TIMS assessments, does not have any publicly funded early education programs. On the other hand, Sweden, which has some of the most comprehensive early child care programs in Europe, was one of the lowest-scoring nations.

Closer to home, studies of early childhood education indicate it might not be in the best interest of children. David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University, wrote in 1987: "When we instruct children in academic subjects ... at too early an age, we miseducate them; we put them at risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage."

In a 2005 Stanford University/University of California research study, "The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children's Development Nationwide," it was reported: "We find that attendance in preschool centers, even for short periods of time each week, hinders the rate at which young children develop social skills and display the motivation to engage in classroom tasks, as reported by their kindergarten teachers."

The Home School Legal Defense Association opposes these attempts to mandate early attendance for three basic reasons. First, there is not enough conclusive research data to prove that earlier is better for children. In fact, we're now seeing that earlier may be worse for many children. Until there is conclusive evidence that mandated early childhood education in schools actually increases academic performance later, no state should fund mandatory programs.

Second, mandating early attendance violates parents' fundamental, God-given right to direct the education of their children as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Third, the high cost to taxpayers to fund earlier and earlier entrance of children into school cannot be justified. In 1991, a bill was introduced in the Alabama legislature to lower the compulsory attendance age. The Alabama legislative fiscal office was asked to determine what it would cost the taxpayers to fund the program. The estimate was $4.7 million a year (1991 dollars).

It's time for state legislators to make sure that lowering compulsory attendance ages is really in the best interest of society before asking the taxpayers to foot the bill. Every taxpayer should ask their legislators whether these programs are a good use of funds.

Michael Smith is the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association. He may be contacted at (540)338-5600; or send email to media@hslda.org.

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