Right to Attend Kindergarten

Ever since the first kindergartens opened in the United States in the mid-1800s, discussions about the right to kindergarten, principles for kindergarten entry and eligibility, and what should be taught in kindergarten have taken place in most jurisdictions. This entry takes a broad view of kindergarten and then focuses on relevant law.

Background

When discussing the right to attend kindergarten, it is important to look at not only the legal rights, but also the moral, civil, parental, and ethical rights of all concerned. Morally, kindergarten can provide children from all walks of life with a sense of belonging to a peer group and should provide appropriate modeling of social, behavioral, and academic skills. In terms of civil rights, and flowing from the U.S. Supreme Court’s monumental decision, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), to end racial segregation in public schools, it is now clear that in American society, separate is not equal. Therefore, all children should have an equal opportunity to attend kindergarten.

Parents have the most knowledge of their own children’s development and early childhood experiences as well as a responsibility for and interest in their children’s future. To this end, parents should be able to pursue programs with the best support and service that will provide the optimal chances for their children to achieve to their fullest potential. Ethically, providing a diverse group of children the opportunity to learn how to function together despite different ability levels enhances the quality of life for all students. Even so, most of the discussion of the rights to kindergarten must focus on legal rights.

Insofar as education is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, it is a responsibility of the states to provide education to their citizens. The only way that the federal government participates in education is through ensuring that the rights of all citizens are fairly met under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution. In recent years, this has meant that Congress has enacted a number of laws, and many cases have been litigated with the intent of ensuring equal educational opportunities for all classes and types of children.

Relevant Law

At the same time, even though education is not a responsibility of the federal government, this does not mean that laws have not been enacted at the national level. For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects the rights of all minority groups. Under this law’s provisions, particularly Title I, now incorporated in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the federal government has sought to ensure that all children, whatever their ability, social or economic background, race, physical condition, or other specific condition, be granted equal opportunities to participate in the kindergarten programs offered by the states within which they live. In fact, these laws have allowed the federal government to become involved at all levels of education to ensure equal opportunity.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was originally passed in 1975 as PL 94–142 and was amended in 1997 and again in 2004, also seeks to make kindergarten available to another class of children. The IDEA provides that children with disabilities are to be educated to the maximum extent with children who do not have disabilities. The IDEA’s provisions address the need for the early childhood education, including kindergarten, for all students with disabilities.

In most states, kindergarten has not been a required element of compulsory attendance laws. Yet, kindergarten has become a more important part of the educational system in many states. In fact, some states have made full-day kindergarten a part of the goals for education in the next few years.

Differences will continue to exist among the states in terms of kindergarten offerings: whether it should be a full-time or part-time program, the proper age to start kindergarten, what academic content standards should be set, and which other criteria need to be considered. There are studies in progress that show that full-day kindergarten may help to close the achievement gap between those who are economically and socially deprived and those who are not lacking in these areas. Others believe that such programs are more an effort to meet the requirements of new federal laws such as NCLB and that the important part of kindergarten is the time spent with other children learning to plan their own activities, socialize with peers, and become prepared for their entry into the required school programs that start with the first grade.

A group known as the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education has pointed out that narrowing the curriculum in kindergarten programs actually constricts the equal education opportunity because it restricts teachers and forces them to treat children with various levels of need too similarly. As more research is done in the area of early childhood education, there will undoubtedly be more theories and opinions developed with respect to exactly what rights to kindergarten are available and which are most successful at producing students prepared to move ahead in school beyond kindergarten.

James P. Wilson

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Compulsory Attendance; Disabled Persons, Rights of; Equal Protection Analysis; No Child Left Behind Act

Further Readings

  • National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. (2000). Still! Unacceptable trends in kindergarten entry and placement, a position paper. Retrieved January 11, 2008, from http://naecs.crc.uiuc.edu/position/trends2000.html 
  • Schimmel, D., & Fischer, L. (1977). The rights of parents in the education of their children. Columbia, MD: The National Committee for Citizens in Education. 

Legal Citations