Alabama Legislature

COVID-19 Makes Kindergarten Requirement Bill ‘Priority’

Dr. Stephanie Parker and Tonya Collier call the number for the numbers game in a Huffman Academy Pre-K class. Dec. 15, 2018. (Source: Julianna Hunter)

MONTGOMERY — A bill to require Alabama public school students to attend kindergarten or take an assessment to go directly to first grade received its first vote of approval, passing the House Education Policy Committee Wednesday.

Bill sponsor Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said her goal is to offer a complete education to students.

“Pre-K is not available for every child in the state of Alabama, so if there is a child who misses pre-K and kindergarten, that child is not ready for the first grade,” Warren said. “So my whole thing is in support of the student being completely ready to go into the first grade when they get there.”

Warren has sponsored a kindergarten requirement bill for several sessions, always running into opposition from Republican colleagues wary of mandates. This year she seems to have more support.

“This is her bill, but it is a priority bill for me,” House Education Policy Committee Chair Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur said.

House Bill 208 would allow a 6-year-old to bypass kindergarten if he or she “demonstrates first grade readiness on a district approved assessment.”

State Superintendent Eric Mackey last month told lawmakers that K-12 enrollment in the fall was down more than 9,000 students. Much of that is in the lower grades and attributed to health concerns and remote learning challenges caused by COVID-19.

Several school leaders last year told Alabama Daily News that this year’s missing kindergarten students will cause challenges next year.

Mark Dixon, president of the A+ Education Partnership, called the policy change important for education outcomes, especially in light of the challenges stemming from the pandemic.

“If a child enters first grade without the foundational skills learned in kindergarten, it immediately sets them back and can have a lasting impact on their success in school,” Dixon said. “With more than 3,000 kindergarten-age children not enrolled in school due to COVID-19, the need for a strong foundation is more important than ever.”

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia require that children attend kindergarten, according to the Education Commission of the United States.

Collins noted that at least 90% of eligible students in a typical year attend kindergarten in public schools. Many that don’t are in private or church-based programs. But she said there still are some who arrive to the first grade unprepared.

“Not only do they not know their letters or numbers, they don’t know how to stand in a line or any of the other things they need to know to be ready to learn,” Collins said.

But not everyone is sold on the bill. Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, questioned the need for it and at one point asked Warren whether her bill defines “kindergarten.”

“I understand what you’re trying to do,” he said. “But I struggle with a mandate.”

Later, Warren noted that Garrett had opposed the bill previously, but she said she would “make a believer out of him.”

Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, pointed to a 2019 law passed by lawmakers that puts an emphasis on early reading and says that starting next school year, third-grade students must have sufficient reading skills before they move to the fourth grade.

“We passed the Literacy Act. we said we wanted these children to read by the third grade,” Drummond said. “We need to start now.”

Rep. Proncey Robertson, R-Mt. Hope, is on the House Education Policy Committee and voted for the bill. The lawmaker, who represents portions of Franklin, Lawrence and Morgan counties, said his concern is for those 6-year-old students who may enter school in first grade while some of their peers have had kindergarten and pre-K.

He said multiple studies show that the earlier kids are learning, the more successful they’ll be in school.

“That’s why we’re investing so much in our pre-K program,” Robertson said.

Robertson also noted that the legislation gives families options to do that kindergarten-level learning at home or elsewhere, as long as those students are ready for first grade.

Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville, noted that the bill gives parents an option to have their child test into the first grade if they are ready.

“I wouldn’t want to send my children or grandchildren to the first grade unprepared,” he said.

Warren’s bill is now ready for a vote in the House. If approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, the bill would become effective three months later. Collins said there may be an amendment to make the law effective immediately, giving parents of young students more time to plan.

Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this story.