Confusion about such matters stems largely from the fact that there exists a conflict between state law and current cultural norms. That is, even though most parents who intend to utilize conventional schooling do currently send their children to kindergarten (at the age of five) - in fact, many send them to 4K and some even choose to start with 3K - the compulsory school attendance law for the state has said for decades - and continues to say - that children are not required to begin formal schooling until the age of six (specifically, not until the year they turn six by September 1), which is conventionally considered to be "first grade." Most people believe attendance in five-year-old kindergarten (5K) is mandatory because every school offers it; they do not realize that 5K (as well as 4K and 3K) is wholly optional. But it is the legal framework currently in place - not common practice - which provides answers to those seeking to homeschool in the early years.
To begin with, though providing explicit academic instruction to three-, four-, or five-year olds is not mandatory, neither is it prohibited. Thus, a parent who intends to homeschool her children may - at her discretion - introduce academic content to young children as she sees fit. She need not mimic the approaches or expectations used by institutional preschools and kindergartens or even follow the requirements in the state's homeschool law; instead, she can (should) customize to meet each child's real needs according to his/her developmental readiness.
That said, parents of children under the age of six are not required to notify the state if they institute some form of homeschooling. In fact, because compulsory school attendance begins at the age of six, there is no mechanism by which parents could tell the state they are homeschooling a younger child even if they wanted to; the homeschool notification form applies only to children between the ages of six and 18, and it would be inappropriate to tally a younger child. This applies even if, for example, a four- or five-year old were doing "first grade work," because the law delineates by a child's chronological age, not his/her academic level. Thus, parents choosing to provide some form of academic instruction to preschoolers or kindergartners get to maintain privacy for themselves and their children...and that's a good thing.
For various reasons, some parents don't want to send a five-year old to school, but may be interested in enrolling later, perhaps as early as first grade. Up until 2009, that was an easy process all through elementary and middle school - and possible with some caveats for high school. And it's still a simple process most of the time - i.e., it's just a matter of asking to enroll in a school and insisting (if questioned) that the child be placed in the "grade" that matches his/her chronological age, the same as any child transferring from any other legally-recognized school. But in 2009, the state legislature passed a law - Act 41 - which complicated the process for those interested in having a child begin at a public school in first grade without having first attended kindergarten at a public or private school - and even though private, home-based education is defined in other state statutes as one form of private schooling, homeschooling for 5K "doesn't count" under Act 41.
It remains unclear why the legislature felt compelled to pass Act 41. After all, most who utilize institutional schooling start their kids in 5K (or earlier) already. And the few families across the state who may have wanted to homeschool for 5K and enroll for first grade were very likely already working with their local school districts on an individual basis. Thus, it seems that Act 41 was created to solve a "problem" that never existed. Or it may have been a way to effectively lower the age of compulsory attendance without going through proper channels for amending a long-standing state law. Whatever the initial motivation, it (unfortunately) remains state law to this day.
With that in mind, what recourse do parents have if they're interested in waiting until first grade - or later - to enroll a child in a conventional school?
- Since Act 41 applies only to admission into first grade, one option would be for parents to commit to homeschooling through kindergarten and first grade and wait for school enrollment until second grade. At that point, Act 41 is moot, and the process of enrolling would be as simple as noted above;
- Alternately, parents may apply for an "exemption" to Act 41, a DPI summary of which states that, when a "parent wishes to enroll [a] child in first grade, [s/he] would need to submit a request to the school district for an exemption from the requirement that the child complete a kindergarten program prior to entering first grade." Act 41 also "requires each school board to establish procedures, conditions, and standards for exempting a child from the requirement that the child complete kindergarten as a prerequisite to enrollment in the first grade." So, while some districts may generously grant exemptions, others do not, and a parent has no recourse if a request for an exemption is denied;
- Another option would be to consider using a conventional private school for first grade and then (possibly) transferring to public school for second grade. Since Act 41 applies only to public schools (including public charters), private schools may freely enroll children into first grade if they were homeschooled for 5K;
- Of course, a final possibility would be for parents to commit to homeschooling for the duration of a child's academic career - or at least unless/until they felt truly compelled to consider an institutional school. Indeed, many parents who believe they'll only homeschool for 5K - or possibly for first grade as well - realize the benefits of private, parent-led home education and keep going for the long haul.
In summary, Wisconsin parents may choose to homeschool their children younger than the age of six, and those children are actually exempt from the requirements in place for children between the ages of six and 18. But parents should be aware of a 2009 law that makes it difficult to enroll in a public school for first grade after completing 5K at home and plan accordingly.