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A kindergarten student at Jackson Elementary School practices letter sounds and matching letters on an alphabet chart last month.

A Senate-passed bill that would make kindergarten mandatory neared final approval Thursday when the Louisiana House approved it 59-31.

The proposal, Senate Bill 10, now returns to the Senate for consideration of one change. It earlier won approval in the upper chamber 34-1.

"It just makes sense because it is good for our children and because it is good for our state," said Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans and House sponsor of the legislation.

Similar efforts have failed in the Legislature at least three times since 2005. Current law requires all 69 school districts to offer kindergarten but attendance is not mandatory.

Under the original measure, children who turn five years old by Sept. 30 would be required to attend kindergarten starting with the 2022-23 school year. That was changed during House debate to apply to children who turn five years of age by March 31 of the calendar year when school begins.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, can either accept the lone House change and seek final Senate approval or request a House-Senate negotiating committee to hammer out the differences.

The session has to end by June 10 at 6 p.m.

Families would have a wide range of options on how to meet the new rules, including public schools, private schools, charter schools and home schooling.

Hughes said, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas have mandatory kindergarten laws.

"The bottom line is we can argue theory but we cannot argue the facts," Hughes told the House. "Investing in early childhood education just makes good business sense."

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The measure is backed by the Council for a Better Louisiana, state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Child Care Association of Louisiana, Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, Louisiana School Boards Association, Louisiana Federation of Teachers and Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

Rep. Beryl Amedée, a Houma Republican closely aligned with Louisiana Family Forum, a group representing the interests of conservative Protestants, and leader of the SB10 opposition, noted that the change would reduce the mandatory age for children in Louisiana to attend school from seven years old to five years old.

Amedée said she received 1,400 emails from parents opposed to the new rules. "How do you promote choice by forcing a decision that should remain in the purview of parents as to whether or not their child is ready?" she said.

Amedée offered an amendment that would keep the compulsory attendance law at the age of seven. It failed 30-65.

Gov. John Bel Edwards made reference to the bill Wednesday during a gathering of early childhood education advocates, and indicated he would sign it if it wins final approval. "Making sure that more children are in kindergarten is important," he said.

Backers said there is clear evidence that children who attend kindergarten fare better in the classroom.

Hughes noted that the list of senators who signed on as sponsors of the bill covered a wide range of political parties and views. "They come from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum but they agree that a strong, early educational foundation is good for our kids," he said.

The change would affect about 2,800 children statewide, officials said earlier.

Just over 50,000 attended kindergarten in the fall of 2020, the latest figures available.

A total of 19 states require students to attend kindergarten, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Another 39, like Louisiana, requires school systems to offer the classes.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.