By Melinda Deslatee, Associated Press
The Louisiana Senate will debate whether to require all 5-year-old children in Louisiana to receive a kindergarten education, after the measure cleared a financial review Monday for its multimillion-dollar price tag.
The Senate Finance Committee advanced the proposal by Senate Education Chairman Cleo Fields without objection, but several senators raised concerns that suggested the bill could face difficulty winning passage from the full Senate.
Currently, Louisiana children are required to attend school from the ages of 7 to 18, unless they graduate early from high school. Fields’ proposal would mandate that children who turn 5 years old by Sept. 30 of each year to attend kindergarten, starting with the 2022-23 school year. People who homeschool their children also would be required to start with kindergarten.
“I just think we have a compelling interest to educate our kids,” Fields said.
Mandatory kindergarten is estimated to cost the state anywhere from $2 million to $12 million more for public schools each year, depending on how many additional students enroll earlier than they otherwise would.
Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat, and other supporters of the measure point to studies showing 90% of brain development happens between birth and age 5. They said 19 other states require mandatory kindergarten, including Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.
“You are attempting to address those who are falling through the crack,” said Sen. Regina Barrow, a Baton Rouge Democrat.
Opponents argue that parents are best equipped to make decisions about the education of their children.
Woody Jenkins, leader of the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party and a former lawmaker, argued that children don’t need the “institutionalization” of kindergarten. He suggested children have greater behavioral problems if they go to school early and said kindergarten doesn’t change a child’s educational trajectory.
“Home is the richest place for early childhood education,” Jenkins said. “None of my children went to kindergarten. I didn’t go to kindergarten. We’ve done very well.”
Barrow replied that science shows the importance of early learning programs. Sen. Greg Tarver, a Shreveport Democrat, also defended the need for early childhood education, and he suggested better education of children could keep them from committing crimes and ending up jailed later.
“I know this bill will cost some money,” Tarver said. “You pay now, or you pay later.”
Sen. Heather Cloud, a Turkey Creek Republican, said she kept her children at home for kindergarten. She said while she understood the value in getting children educated, she didn’t want parents to be penalized with fines or the risk of jail time if they choose to skip kindergarten for their children.
But Cloud’s effort to remove any penalties for parents from the bill failed, with six senators voting against the amendment and only three voting for it.
Sen. Cameron Henry, a Jefferson Parish Republican, said in his area many parents send their children to Catholic and private schools. He said he was concerned that some of those schools might not have available kindergarten spots for children, and he didn’t want to force a parent to put their child in a school they didn’t want their children to attend. Henry said he wanted to tweak the measure to address that worry.
“I think they should be in school,” Henry said. “We just have to work through that.”
This article was originally published by Associated Press.