Los Angeles has been grappling with two epidemics over the past several years: Covid-19 and the exodus of students from our public education system. The two challenges are interrelated. Through the incredible work of our dedicated health care workers and public health professionals, we are now on solid footing in addressing Covid. However, declining enrollment poses another threat to our children and our schools, and we must take steps to address it now.
Since the advent of the pandemic, enrollment decline has become a national trend for many school districts across the country. In Los Angeles Unified, the decline has been most apparent among our youngest learners in kindergarten — a 14% enrollment drop in 2020 and a 6% drop in 2021. There is evidence that a decline in kindergarten enrollment will contribute to a widening of the achievement gap between those who enroll and those who did not attend or were chronically absent in kindergarten. This is a preventable tragedy.
As the superintendent of LAUSD and the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, we represent the life cycle of formal education and have deep appreciation of the need to expand learning opportunities by advancing equity. For this reason, we enthusiastically endorse Senate Bill 70 because it will require all students to attend kindergarten prior to entering first grade at a public school.
Vaccines have proven to be a reliable scientific approach to combating Covid. Similarly, Senate Bill 70 is a data-driven strategy to address opportunity gaps, learning loss, and the future competitiveness of California’s students — all at a net neutral cost to the state.
Kindergarten is more than just play. It is one of the most formative periods for learning and development in a child’s life. At 5 to 6 years old, children begin to develop critical social skills. They engage in exploration and establish fundamental tools necessary for academic success. Numerous studies have shown that achievement in kindergarten correlates with higher first, second and third grade test scores, college entrance scores, long-term earnings and quality of life. Conversely, children who don’t attend kindergarten are often at a tremendous disadvantage, spending years working to make up ground they lost. If the losses are not compensated for, they are often at greater risk of dropping out.
A small minority contend that kindergarten may not affect future student achievement. We strongly disagree. Further, we believe it is crucial for underrepresented communities. Recent data from the California Research Bureau indicates that the majority of students not enrolled in kindergarten are Latino, which is a significant equity issue. Latino children, non-English speakers, children from immigrant households, and children from working families generally, benefit from their enrollment in kindergarten. A recent study by Maria Rosales-Rueda and Jade Jenkins found that Black and Latino children who attend compulsory kindergarten experienced a 5 percentage point increase in college completion rates compared with white children.
SB 70 will ensure that all students have access to kindergarten. Currently, California state law only requires compulsory education starting at age 6. Attendance in kindergarten should not be optional, and voluntary participation results in too many parents delaying their child’s entrance into school until first grade. We must go further by making kindergarten mandatory. Importantly, the bill allows parents to retain the ability to choose between public and private options, or to homeschool their children — the bill does not dictate where parents send their children, simply that they send their children somewhere. The concern is for children who remain at home and miss out on the critical services and academic resources schools can offer. Additionally, local districts would maintain the authority to promote children demonstrating developmental proficiency for first grade.
Providing world-class educational opportunities and academic experiences must begin early. Our students must be prepared to navigate a deeply changed post-pandemic world. If they are to be the next big problem solvers, we must ensure that they receive the best learning opportunities we have to offer, and they must begin learning as early as possible.
The city of Los Angeles shines as a beacon for success, modeling what opportunity looks like across the world. Our ethnic, cultural and experiential diversity are inextricably woven into the fabric of our city and add to its vitality. But too often, Black, brown, neurodivergent and disabled students feel the disproportionate effects of disadvantage and systemic inequality. Kindergarten is the foundational building block for education and opportunity, one of the great equalizers for historically underserved students. For this reason, we implore California Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign SB 70. Kindergarten is an effective means to ensure that a bright future is possible for all of California’s children. This is a goal we can achieve.
Alberto M. Carvalho is superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest, and Pedro A. Noguera is the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the USC Rossier School of Education.
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