Bill would make kindergarten mandatory for Michigan children

A young girl wearing a sweater and a backpack holds the hand of an adult while walking down the street.
Taliyah Barnes makes her way to kindergarten during the first day of school in 2022 in Detroit. Some lawmakers want to ensure all Michigan students attend kindergarten by making it mandatory. (Nic Antaya for Chalkbeat)

Lawmakers want to make kindergarten attendance mandatory in Michigan to improve academic achievement — and the head of the state’s largest district says such a requirement could also help address chronic absenteeism.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat from Livonia who introduced a bill to make kindergarten mandatory, said it’s necessary “if we’re serious about improving academics.”

Students in the state currently don’t have to attend school until first grade, though many do attend kindergarten and most districts offer it.

Detroit school Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who supports the legislation, said Tuesday during a legislative hearing that requiring kindergarten will improve attendance and student academic outcomes.

Vitti said more than 70% of the kindergarten students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District last year were chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 or more days in the school year. The rates, he said, were lower for first, second, and third grades.

“We want to start as early as possible, creating a culture and an expectation that school is important every day,” Vitti said.

The district has long struggled with chronic absenteeism. During the 2021-22 school year, 77% of the students were chronically absent, in part because of quarantining rules during the pandemic. That rate improved to 66% during the 2022-23 school year.

Vitti pointed out that at the beginning of the school year, about 6% of kindergarten students typically perform at or above grade level on district tests. That number soars to 58% by the end of the year.

“We actually believe that the 58% number would be higher if kindergarten was mandatory. It just sets the stage and the expectations the right way.”

Polehanki, who chairs the education committee, said the impetus of her bill had been to create a continuum from preschool through postsecondary education. She said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s push to provide free preschool for all, regardless of income, is an important initiative. But she said in order to do that, kindergarten must not be optional.

After hearing from Vitti, she said the bill would address academic achievement, but also “do quite a bit to remedy” chronic absenteeism in kindergarten. She said she wants lawmakers to have a broader discussion about addressing chronic absenteeism. Nearly a third of the students in the state were considered chronically absent during the 2022-23 school year.

Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet, a Democrat from Bay City, said the kindergarten chronic absenteeism rate in Detroit “is the most compelling case to say this is the right thing to do.”

Sheryl Kennedy, legislative liaison for the Michigan Department of Education, said the MDE supports making kindergarten mandatory. But she said the department would like to see some changes, such as funding to help districts that might see increased costs from the requirement. She said 17 states and the District of Columbia already have mandatory kindergarten laws.

There was also a back-and-forth between Kennedy and Sen. John Damoose, a Republican from Harbor Springs over language in a slide that accompanied her presentation that said “Demonstrated enrollment in private, parochial, charter, or home school meets the requirements of this bill.”

Damoose questioned the home school language, asking “Can you describe what demonstrated enrollment looks like especially if we’re talking about home schools?”

In Michigan, home-schooled children aren’t required to register with the state, so officials have no idea how many kids are being educated at home. There has been considerable debate recently because State Superintendent Michael Rice and some lawmakers have called on changing the law to require parents who home-school their children to register with the state.

Polehanki said the intent of the legislation is not to demonstrate enrollment among home-schoolers.

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at

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