Education Committee advances bill for mandatory kindergarten education

Staff Report

BATON ROUGE -- The Senate Education Committee voted 5-1 last week to advance a bill that requires mandatory kindergarten and school attendance for Louisiana children beginning at age 5.

Sen. Cleo Fields

“We have about 2,800 kids who do not attend kindergarten in the state of Louisiana,” Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, the author of the bill author and the committee’s chairman. “Early childhood education is a necessity. A brain is developed most in the ages from birth to 5 years of age and this bill will give us an opportunity to take advantage of that.”

Senate Bill 10 will require each city, parish and local school board to offer full-day kindergarten instruction to any child who turns five before Sept. 30 of the calendar year in which the school year begins. Children younger than 5 may enter kindergarten if they are evaluated and identified as gifted by the Louisiana Department of Education.

Present law does not mandate kindergarten attendance, and a child in Louisiana is not required to start attending school until age 7.

During the hearing, multiple amendments were added to the bill, including one stating that the bill allows for home study programs or nonpublic schools not seeking state approval to qualify as a kindergarten program under the law.

Susan East Nelson, executive director of the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, spoke in support of the bill. In 2015, the Louisiana Partnership launched a platform for children with mandatory kindergarten being a major item on the agenda.

She stated that kindergarten gives children healthy meals and developmental screening beginning at a younger age.

Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, the Senate’s president pro tempore, disagreed with the bill on the grounds that some children are not ready to attend kindergarten at the age of 5.

Jessie Leger, the director of legislative affairs for Homeschool Louisiana, also spoke in opposition to the bill, citing the 2009 Louisiana children’s code, which states that is the parent’s responsibility to decide the “educational, moral and ethical training of the child.”

“Just like children walk, talk, crawl and sit-up at different ages, children have a range of when they learn how to read,” Leger said. “Some as early as 3 or 4 and some, like my middle child, not until 9. Had he been in a classroom setting, he would have been told there is a deficiency with a whole alphabet soup of diagnoses, but he just needed some more time.”

Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, heartily advocated for the bill and responded to Leger by stating that even children who may be immature would benefit from beginning school earlier and receiving extra care in order to catch up with the other children their age.

 “When an immature child that has not had some kind of intervention of formal education comes into first grade, that first grade teacher is then graded based on that child’s performance,” said Sen. Jackson. “But that teacher, principal and staff is obligated at that point to ensure that child performs at the same level as a child who has availed himself to some type of formal education in Pre-K 4 or kindergarten.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office took to social media to support the bill, posting a graphic stating the benefits of mandatory kindergarten. They include laying the foundation for reading, math and science; developing children’s social-emotional skills; and creating greater success in elementary school and beyond.

 “This bill is vital for ensuring all of Louisiana’s children have the opportunity to thrive, and I am proud to have it in my legislative agenda,” the caption on Edwards’ message said.

The bill next moves to the Senate floor for debate.