Mandatory kindergarten might be on the way in Louisiana; here's what it means
A bill that would make kindergarten mandatory in Louisiana cleared its first hurdle Wednesday when the Senate Education Committee moved it forward after at least one member said she didn't know it wasn't already required.
Senate Bill 10 by Senate Education Committee Chairman Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, would require children who turn 5 before Sept. 30 of a school year to attend kindergarten or the home school equivalent.
Members voted 5-1 in favor of the bill with only Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, objecting.
"Early childhood education is a necessity," Fields said. "Brains develop the most between birth and 5 years old."
Almost all of Louisiana's eligible children already voluntarily attend kindergarten, which is required to be offered in all 69 of the state's school districts.
More than 50,000 students were enrolled in kindergarten last fall, while an estimated 2,800 eligible children didn't attend. Adding those children would cost the state about $2 million per year.
Children are currently required to attend school from the ages of 7 to 18 unless they graduate early from high school.
"I didn't even realize kindergarten isn't mandatory," said Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe. "I think it's vitally important."
Nineteen states currently make kindergarten mandatory, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Susan East Nelson of the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families said making kindergarten mandatory is among the recommendations in her agency's platform.
"This would be a big step in helping children thrive," Nelson testified during Wednesday's hearing.
She also noted additional benefits to kindergarten like school-provided meals and developmental screenings.
Sarah Vandergriff of the Louisiana Association of Charter Schools also testified in favor of the bill.
"We very much support any message we can send to parents supporting early childhood education," Vandergriff said. "It's that first building block step."
But others believe the decision on whether to send a child to kindergarten is best left to the parents.
"Some of (the children) just aren't ready," said Jessie Leger of Home School Louisiana. "We should allow parents to choose what's best for their children."
That was the sentiment of the others opposing the bill, including Mizell and Dale Hoffpauir of the Louisiana Family Forum.
"I have an internal conflict," Mizell said. "I'm a big proponent of early childhood education as long as it's voluntary and not mandatory.
"I never went to kindergarten. I didn't know I was missing anything, but apparently I was."
Jackson said she believes keeping children from attending kindergarten "is a disservice to them."
Previous efforts to make kindergarten mandatory in 2005, 2008 and 2012 failed, but Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is supporting Fields' effort this year.
The bill will likely be heard in Senate Finance next because it carries a cost. If approved there it will move to the full Senate for debate.
Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1.