It may be hard for some to believe, but there are instances where children in Wyoming don’t start attending kindergarten until age 7.
Most children traditionally enter public or private schooling by age 5 or 6, but Wyoming state law only requires children to attend kindergarten by the time they turn 7.
State Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, is proposing legislation that would lower that threshold to age 6. She said her primary motivation for bringing her bill, titled “Compulsory School Attendance-Minimum Age” comes from concerns for the early development of Wyoming children.
Her bill also is supported by the Wyoming School Board Association.
Schuler said a local school superintendent brought to her attention about a year ago that there are 7-year-olds who are entering kindergarten in Wyoming schools.
“If we really want to be the leader in educational attainment in our state and continue to move forward, move the needle forward, this is maybe a small slice of something we can do,” Schuler said.
Wyoming Not Alone
According to a National Center for Education Statistics analysis from 2020, Wyoming is one of 10 states that allow children to not attend kindergarten until age 7, while Washington allows children to start attending as late as the age of 8.
Twenty-six states require school attendance by age 6, and Schuler said most of these states have strong school performance scores.
“You could get a 7-year-old that maybe has not had much education at home, and all of a sudden they’re thrust into the fray with these young kids and they’re behind,” Schuler said. “I’m sure it’s frustrating for them.”
Students entering school this late could be as old as 20 by their senior year of high school, assuming they aren’t held back in any grades.
Conversely, students in Wyoming can be as young as 5 as of Sept. 15 of their current school year to attend kindergarten.
At one point in time, school attendance wasn’t compulsory in Wyoming. Senate File 46 would align with current law requiring school attendance until the age of 16.
Schuler said the ultimate purpose of the bill is to improve Wyoming’s school performance.
“What we want is a good workforce here and kids who will eventually be good citizens and be able to do great things in our community and state,” Schuler said.
As a member of Gov. Mark Gordon’s Wyoming Early Childhood State Advisory Council, Schuler has been working on other issues to prepare children for kindergarten.
Extensive studies have shown that early childhood development is critical to lifelong success. Often, those who don’t learn to read by a certain age often suffer some form of learning challenges and disabilities into adulthood.
“Those first three years are so important. I think we’ve got to anything and everything we can to try and push the needle forward for our students,” Schuler said.
Wyoming’s Early Intervention and Education Program helps children ages 5 and younger with learning issues, but these facilities are not located in every community or county.
Schuler said she’s already anticipating some pushback with arguments that it restricts parental decision-making for their children.
She said she understands these concerns, but disagrees and says it would have no impact on current exemptions allowing parents to homeschool their children if they don’t believe they are physically or emotionally ready for a traditional school setting.
“It’ll even encourage those who want to do homeschooling instead of public school … to start it at 5 instead of waiting until the child is 7 and then they go through homeschooling,” Schuler said. “It kind of puts more onus on the parent.”
She also believes there may be some hesitancy to address the bill as the upcoming legislative session will be a budget session.
“It probably stands to reason when our youngsters should be in school,” said Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, a co-sponsor on the bill.
A similar piece of legislation lowering the age of required schooling to 5 was rejected by the Joint Judiciary Committee last summer.
Schuler, a former high school teacher, believes Wyoming’s schools sometimes get a bad rap based on public school trends in other states. Others have criticized Wyoming’s school performance, citing the fact that the state’s per-pupil funding is usually near the top 10 in the nation.
Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress and Wyoming Alternate Assessment results from the 2022-23 school year showed that 26% of state schools improved their performance rating last year, 53% of schools maintained their previous performance ratings and 21% of schools declined.
‘Wyoming typically ranks around the middle of the pack for performance on a national level, but has shown particularly strong performance in areas like fourth and eighth grade math and reading.
Schuler believes the state is getting the most out of its public education money but that improvement can still be made.
“This is just another tool in the toolbox to maybe help us become even more efficient and more effective with our kids being ready for school and ready to jump in,” she said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.