BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A state Senate education leader’s effort to make kindergarten mandatory in Louisiana is renewing divisions about an idea that has previously failed to win legislative passage.
The Advocate reports that backers of the requirement, up for debate in the legislative session that starts next month, say it would dovetail with state efforts to expand early childhood education and could help the state improve its poor performance in public schools.
“It just makes basic sense,” said Senate Education Chairman Cleo Fields, the Baton Rouge Democrat who is pushing the proposal.
Critics contend any such mandate would be an intrusion on an issue best left to families.
“That decision should be made by parents on an individual basis as a matter of educational choice, not by the Louisiana Legislature,” said Gene Mills, president of the influential conservative organization Louisiana Family Forum.
State law requires all 69 public school districts to offer kindergarten classes, but enrollment is not required. Children are required to attend school from the ages of 7 to 18, unless they graduate early from high school.
Under Fields’ proposal, children who turn 5 years old by Sept. 30 would be required to attend kindergarten starting with the 2022-23 school year.
It’s unclear how many children could be affected by the bill and how much it would cost the state to increase public school enrollment.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia require children to attend kindergarten, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Louisiana lawmakers have debated mandating kindergarten for years, including most recently in 2012.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education weighed in on the idea at the request of the Legislature after the 2008 lawmaking session. That study said kindergarten is especially helpful for students from low-income families.
“Children who attend kindergarten perform better in subsequent grade levels and are more likely to graduate from high school than those who do not attend kindergarten,” the report said.
Still, that decade-old study said other questions remained unresolved and recommended that lawmakers not make kindergarten mandatory.
The board hasn’t yet taken a position on Fields’ bill for the upcoming session.
State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said he agrees with the aims of the measure.
“Fundamentally, I support anything that illuminates early childhood education in Louisiana,” Brumley told The Advocate. “In a state where only 40% of Louisiana students begin school kindergarten-ready, I appreciate the opportunity to have additional conversations around the need to support our youngest learners.”