Bill on kindergarten start dates moves forward

by CINDY M. CRANMER

A bill to move back the kindergarten start date in Michigan is moving forward after the Senate Education Committee approved a three-year plan to phase it in.

Sen. Darwin Booher, the bills’ sponsor, told The Rockford Squire that the five-member panel ended up split over the decision after hearing extensive testimony from educators on Wednesday, March 21. Kindergarten teachers statewide have supported the measure overall, while some school administrators voiced opposition to the plan.

Rolling back the eligibility date means fewer students starting kindergarten and the state saving millions in per-student allowances that are provided to public schools.

Booher said he is in support of using the savings as an opportunity to restore support and invest in early childhood programs that have been underfunded.

Four-year-olds have been eligible to start kindergarten in Michigan as long as they turn five by December 1 of the school year they begin. After concerns were voiced by school districts, a phased-in plan that staggers the cut-off for kindergarten eligibility was approved.

During the 2012-2013 school year, the cut-off will be November 1. It will be moved back to October 1 for the 2013-2014 school year and the cut-off by the 2014-2015 school year would be September 1.

The original bill had an exception, but that language has since been taken out, but some administrators are pushing for that in the final bill.

“A large part of kindergarten is learning how to adapt socially,” said Farwell Superintendent Carl Seiter. “When students struggle with the social aspect, the academics suffer.”

“From an education standpoint, I think the shift will help student achievement in the long run,” Seiter said. “Academically, it’s going to be a good move.”

“Financially, this could impact schools,” Seiter said. “I would choose the academic aspects over the financial aspects at this point.”

Locally, Rockford Superintendent Dr. Michael Shibler said parents have the most information about whether students are ready for school.

“I really think the people who are most qualified to decide if students are ready for kindergarten are the parents,” Shibler said. “I really think the parents and the school district should make the decision.”

Shibler said he likes the idea of allowing for testing to appeal the decision if the age is a factor. “As long as the law allows a phase-in period, I think that would be fair as well,” he said.

This allows parents to plan for their students’ education and districts to prepare for the loss of students over time rather than just having it happen in one year.

While many administrators considered that they would eventually see these students, Shibler pointed out that parents could opt for private education if they felt their young child was ready for school.

“If a parent disagrees with the age requirement, they could send their child to a private school. This means the public school would lose the opportunity of enrolling that student,” Shibler said.

Administrators statewide also have raised concerns about whether the funding the state saves from the age difference will help make universally accessible preschool programs. This means have free or affordable preschool programs as well as having options for students who will turn five during the early part of the year.

“I’m very concerned we don’t leave a portion of our kids out of early childhood,” said Harrison Superintendent Tom House.

Shibler said he also would have a concern that developmental kindergarten and young five programs not be phased out. With all kindergarten students being five when they start, he said he could see these programs being something that is cut in tough economic times.

“I think some of these are decisions that parents and schools should make the decision together. I have always been a strong supporter of local control,” Shibler said. “Lansing should not be making some of these decisions, the parents and school districts should be.”

Clare Superintendent Doniel Pummell echoed her colleagues’ sentiments from around the state about funding for the schools and for early childhood as well as voicing opposition to legislation that makes a mandate rather than allowing schools flexibility.

Pummell said the real issue is the school readiness piece not age. “Readiness is readiness,” Pummell said. She said mandating an age is not addressing whether students are ready.

“Let’s talk about school readiness and address issues concerning that. They’re taking away the opportunities for students who are ready and the flexibility of school districts,” Pummell said.

“They’re making a mandate and changing a policy to address a different issue. Assist parents in readiness rather than changing a calendar date,” Pummell said. “We look at a variety of aspects to make sure they’re ready. Don’t just look at a date on the calendar.”

Booher said the change is estimated to save the state $50.4 million in the first year, $100.8 million the following year and $151 million by the third year. The savings are based on the foundation allowances of $7,200 per pupil.

Booher said he also testified on Wednesday, March 21 reiterating his support to use the savings to restore funding for early childhood education. “Get all kids ready so they are better prepared,” Booher said.

The matter next goes before the full Senate before going to the state House for committee review and action. He said a similar bill has been proposed in the House.

Booher, a Republican representing the 35th District which includes Clare County, said 36 other states have already made the change to the later kindergarten start date.

“Studies are clear that children will do better if they are older when they start,” Booher said. “Statistics show that mentally four-year-olds may be ready but not behaviorally or socially.”

Booher said he would have preferred that it would start with the age requirement during the 2012-2013 school year, but “it will be phased in” at the request of school administrators and the Michigan Education Association.

“Funding is one of the issues. What we’re hearing the most from administrators is about funding,” Booher said. “Policy is what the bill is about not financial.”

Booher said the per-pupil funding is a concern to some districts. “It is a lot of money,” he said. “The money will still be in school aid.”

Booher said there are a lot of requirements kindergarten students need to meet to pass to first grade so being able to focus is important.

“We think this is the right thing long term in education for students,” Booher said. “I believe they’ll do better. There are studies that show that as well.”

The original bill had an exception, but that language has since been taken out.

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