Georgia law requires that a child must be 5-years-old on or before September 1 to enter a public kindergarten. Should there be an appeals process for kids who turn 5 shortly after the cutoff? 
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Kindergarten start dates: Too early, too late or too strict?

Parents wonder why there’s no appeal for kids who miss cutoff by days

When my oldest son was a toddler, he attended a small preschool with two little girls who were inseparable. Their birthdays were a few days apart, late August and early September. I assumed these best buddies would graduate the preschool and skip off to kindergarten together. 

However, that week difference in their birthdays meant one girl met the Sept. 1 deadline to turn 5 and go to kindergarten, while the other did not and remained another year at the preschool. 

At the time, I was unaware how strict districts were about kindergarten start dates. I recently looked into the issue after a parent contacted me with questions.

A Fulton County dad explained his son missed the Sept. 1 kindergarten cutoff date by one day. He told me the school board said it could not make an exception as it would cost Fulton County Schools state funding.

He asked: Was that true?

It is true, unless the child already attended kindergarten in another state. 

State policy says:

A child must be 5-years-old on or before September 1 to enter a public Kindergarten. The child must be 6-years-old on or before September 1 to enter first grade. School systems must verify age before enrollment.

A child who was a legal resident of one or more states for a period of two years immediately prior to moving to Georgia and who was legally enrolled in either a public Kindergarten or first grade, or a private Kindergarten or first grade accredited by a state or regional association, would be eligible to enroll in Georgia schools, provided that the Kindergartner is 5-years-old by December 31 or the first grader is 6 by that date.

Georgia also imposed a funding penalty to spur compliance. As the state Department of Education spokeswoman told me: 

The age cutoff exists for funding purposes. School districts can enroll a child who does not meet the age cutoff, but they will not receive FTE funding for that child. This is not waivable.

If a district permitted children who missed the cutoff to start kindergarten anyway, the district would not only lose state funding for that year, it would also forgo state funding for those children in first grade.

That’s because Georgia has a law stating a child must be 6 on or before Sept. 1 for first grade. State funding would not kick in for those kids until second grade. 

In talking to school leaders about this question, they don’t deny that a child born Sept. 2 could thrive in kindergarten, but say parents of a child born Sept. 3 or 4 could make the same argument and often do.

School administrators say it’s helpful to have an iron-clad policy to avoid a slow erosion of the cutoff date. And given the deep cuts to education, school leaders contend districts cannot afford to sacrifice state funding to accommodate parents who believe their underaged children are ready for kindergarten.  

But the dad wondered why parents in Georgia have the freedom to choose to start their children in kindergarten later but not earlier. He pointed out Georgia allows parents of a child born in August or July to elect to have their child start school later than their birthdate would require. 

The father asks a fair question: 

Why are parents of children born September 1 or earlier allowed to use their personal judgment when making educational decisions for their children, but we are not? Research shows that delaying kindergarten has significant implications over the course of a child's life - not only academic, but economic.

By denying us the right that many parents have to make an educational decision for our child, you are telling us that we must bear thousands of dollars of additional childcare costs - not to mention the cost to our son's earning potential over the course of his working career. 

As parents, we must consider our son's best interests not just today, not just next year, but 20 and 30 years from now. I'm certain we are not the only parents in this situation; there surely must be a solution to determine kindergarten readiness for children born within a few weeks of the cutoff date. We'd be happy to have our son undergo screening to demonstrate his preparedness for school.

The father cites research showing that being the youngest student in kindergarten doesn’t harm children.

In 2017, I interviewed the co-author of that research, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Her study examined the growing practice among parents of holding kids back from starting kindergarten because they would be the youngest in the class, a practice known as redshirting. 

"Certainly, for some kids redshirting has been helpful, but, by and large, it is probably not worth it for many kids," said Schanzenbach. While there may be differences in student ability and maturity in kindergarten based on the age of the child, the parents of the youngest students ought to remember their kids will catch up, she said, explaining, "These differences, which may seem so big at the beginning of kindergarten, dissipate.”

The research shows the age advantage wears off with time, disappearing by high school. In kindergarten, redshirted students have been alive up to 20 percent longer than their classmates, which means they've had more story times, museum visits and puppet shows to stimulate their brain development and critical thinking skills, said Schanzenbach. By freshman year, however, those redshirted students are at most 7 percent older than peers.

In writing about their study in Education Next, Schanzenbach and her co-author Stephanie Howard Larson said: 

As any good educator will tell you, parents know their children best. There are multiple factors to weigh when deciding whether a preschooler is ready to thrive in kindergarten. What research tells us about the “average” child or “most” children may not apply to a particular son’s or daughter’s unique abilities and delays. Families might want to speak with parents of older children about their own kindergarten-enrollment decisions and how they view them in retrospect. And then, parents should follow their own best judgment.

Do you think the state should create an appeals process for kids born close to the cut-off date for kindergarten? What has been your experience? 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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