The bid to make kindergarten mandatory in Louisiana, which has been tried before and failed, is about to spark controversy again.

Backers say the requirement would dovetail with state efforts to expand early childhood education, and that it could help get the state off the bottom of many rankings for public school achievement.

"It just makes basic sense," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Cleo Fields, who has filed a bill to require kindergarten attendance for debate during the 2021 regular legislative session.

Critics contend that any such mandate would be an intrusion on an issue best left up 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 Louisiana Family Forum.

State law requires all 69 public school districts to offer kindergarten classes. However, enrollment is not required. Children are required to attend school from the ages of 7-18 years, unless they graduate from high school early.

Under Fields' proposal, children who turn five years old by Sept. 30 would be required to attend kindergarten starting with the 2022-23 school year.

Fields said studies show that children who skip kindergarten do not fare as well in the first grade.

He said it goes along with the urgency to educate children early, especially since research shows how fast their brains are developing. "And it is necessary, if we are going to effectively address lack of preparation for first grade and our chronically low reading scores," the Baton Rouge Democrat said.

A report last year said 43% of kindergarten students were reading on grade level, 54% of first graders, 56% of second graders and 53% of third graders.

The study set off alarm bells among state education leaders, including plans for a new push to scrutinize student performance in kindergarten, first and second grade since reading on grade level is vital to education success.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said he agrees with the aims of the bill.

"Fundamentally I support anything that illuminates early childhood education in Louisiana," Brumley said. "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."

One of the unknowns is how many children the mandate would affect.

The state Department of Education does not track how many children are eligible for kindergarten but not enrolled. Some families believe they can better prepare their children, both academically and socially, by keeping them home for another year.

A total of 50,423 students were attending kindergarten classes in October, 2020, according to state figures. The head count for first graders totaled 53,225.

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That means the mandate would affect about 2,800 students, according to some state officials.

Others say there are a variety of reasons for that 2,800-student gap, not just families opting not to send their children to kindergarten.

Whether the change would have a big impact on state finances is also unclear.

The state spends $5,545 per student today, which means 2,800 more would cost about $2 million per year.

A total of 19 states and the District of Columbia require children to attend kindergarten, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That list incudes Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

Also, 39 states and the District of Columbia require school districts to offer kindergarten, like Louisiana.

Mandating kindergarten has been tried in the Legislature for years, including 2012, 2008 and 2005.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education prepared a report on the issue at the request of the Legislature after the 2008 session.

That study said kindergarten is especially helpful for students from low-income families, which is two-thirds of the state's public school population, and noted that it was long touted as a way for children to learn numbers, shapes, sounds and how to play together.

"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," according to the report.

However, the BESE study said other questions were unresolved and it recommended that lawmakers not make kindergarten mandatory.

BESE President Sandy Holloway said the 11-member board will review a variety of bills for the 2021 session before staking out a position.

Aside from how many children would be affected the debate may turn on philosophical arguments.

The Louisiana Family Forum says it advocates for traditional family values. "This high-stake idea is misguided because it usurps parental discretion in determining their child's academic readiness and the parent's authority to guide educational decisions for their child," Mills said in a text message.

"Children and families are struggling with disruptions brought by COVID and existing government mandates, which make class attendance nearly impossible to fulfill," he said.

Fields' proposal is backed by the Louisiana School Boards Association. "The LSBA agrees that making kindergarten compulsory is a needed first step toward moving toward universal pre-K," said Janet Pope, executive director of the group.

Brigitte Nieland, director of government affairs for the advocacy group Stand For Children, noted that many people are surprised to learn that kindergarten is not mandatory in Louisiana. "Obviously, if kids are going to be prepared and we emphasize early childhood education kindergarten would be a necessary step," Nieland said. 

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