Mandatory Kindergarten Won't Be Coming to California

Citing costs, California Gov. Gavin Newsom struck a victory for parental choice in education.


Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed S.B. 70, a law passed by California's Legislature that would have made kindergarten mandatory for children in the state. In vetoing the law, Newsom cited the price, "Fund cost impacts of up to $268 million ongoing, which is not currently accounted for in the state's fiscal plan." 

Mandatory kindergarten is a patchwork policy across the United States. With Newsom's veto, California remains one of the 30 states, including New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina, that do not compel kindergarten attendance. 

Mandating kindergarten is not only a massive government expenditure, as Newsom pointed out, but also an encroachment on educational freedom. "The decision to send children to kindergarten should be made by parents, not the government forcing all children into a one-size-fits-all program," says Lance Izumi, senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. "Parents are the ones who know the individual needs of their children. Politicians and bureaucrats do not."

S.B. 70's sponsor, Sen. Susan Rubio (D–Los Angeles), wrote in the bill's fact sheet that "Since kindergarten is not mandatory, students that do not attend miss fundamental instruction putting them at a disadvantage in a classroom setting as they enter first grade." Rubio also pushed for the bill by focusing on the impact it would have on low-income communities. "Kindergarten attendance is also an important aspect in reducing chronic absenteeism and closing the achievement gap."

However, sending children to school who are not ready for it also has consequences. Colleen Hroncich, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, shared with Reason that "A 2018 Harvard study found children who start school at a younger age are more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than their slightly older classmates. The lead researcher said the results suggest it's possible that many kids are being overdiagnosed and overtreated for ADHD. Black children and children in poverty are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, so mandating earlier school could lead to overdiagnosis among some of the populations Senator Rubio cited."

Compulsory kindergarten is also an invitation for unnecessary government intervention. As Rubio herself pointed out, "Pre-COVID, approximately 95% of eligible students attended kindergarten." Sen. Melissa Melendez (R–Lake Elsinore), who opposed the bill, told Reason that this illustrates why it wasn't necessary. "In 2014, Governor Brown vetoed a nearly identical measure," she wrote. Brown said at the time that "Most children already attend kindergarten and those that don't may be enrolled in other educational or developmental programs that are deemed more appropriate for them by their families. I would prefer to let parents determine what is best for their children, rather than mandate an entirely new grade level." Melendez noted that "these words are as true and thoughtful now as they were seven years ago."

Both Hroncich and Izumi agree that Newsom's veto is a step in the right direction for educational freedom. Hroncich stresses the need for education saving accounts (ESAs) and says that Newsom "could reduce the cost of education in California while better serving the students by working with the legislature to enact school choice policies" and that "the public would likely back him in this effort." 

"Even in California, Morning Consult polling finds very strong support for a variety of school choice proposals. Among parents, more than 75% expressed support for ESAs, school vouchers, and charter schools," Hroncich noted.

Izumi also highlighted the importance of homeschooling. "For those who can do it, homeschooling offers parents the ability to control the education of their children—they decide what to teach and how to teach."

Newsom has achieved a small victory for parental choice in education.