January 15, 2013 10:51:19 AM
JACKSON -- Momentum may be building toward making kindergarten mandatory in Mississippi.
At least four senators plan to introduce bills requiring 5-year-olds to attend school, and at least one House member also plans such a bill.
The Education Commission of the States says Mississippi would become the 15th state to make kindergarten attendance mandatory. The state's public schools have been required to offer kindergarten since the passage of the 1982 Education Reform Act, but attendance isn't required. Among the states where attendance is currently mandatory are Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he intends to include a mandatory kindergarten requirement in a bill intended to strengthen reading instruction in grades K-3. He said teachers can't require a child to repeat kindergarten under current law if parents don't agree. He also said voluntary attendance was a compromise when classes for 5-year-olds were created 30 years ago.
"Maybe we can finally close that door 30 years later," Tollison said.
Gov. Phil Bryant is pushing for the Legislature to provide funding to train teachers at child care centers for those younger than 5, and mandatory kindergarten could link up with that early-learning push. Among those supporting the effort is interim state Superintendent Lynn House.
The Mississippi Department of Education supports efforts to begin teaching children as early as possible, House said in a written statement Monday.
"With the advent of Common Core State Standards, the requirements for kindergarten will be more stringent, and any efforts to encourage early learning will better prepare students," she said.
Oleta Fitzgerald, who heads the Children's Defense Fund's Southern Regional Office, said Common Core standards envision children being able to read before they leave kindergarten, making it crucial that all children attend.
Proposed laws to require attendance have failed in Mississippi before, with opponents arguing that the state should not interfere with parents' decisions on how to raise their children.
Most Mississippi 5-year-olds are already in kindergarten. Last year, more than 41,000 students were enrolled in public kindergartens. That includes some held back to repeat the grade, but doesn't include the roughly 10 percent of Mississippi children in private schools.
Based on U.S. Census figures, Mississippi had only about 42,000 students altogether in the kindergarten age group last year.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, one of three senators to introduce mandatory kindergarten bills, said he believed the measure would affect only a small share of children. "We need 100 percent of our children in school," Blount said.
Sens. Kelvin Butler, D-McComb and Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, have introduced similar bills.
Those who want to require attendance say some students may be enrolled in kindergarten but still miss large chunks of school.
"They need to be there every day receiving all the information that's being taught to them," said Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, who plans to introduce a bill in the House mandating attendance.
Williams-Barnes said the issue is personal to her because her mother taught in the state's first public kindergarten pilot program in Pass Christian in 1976.