Patrick B. McGuigan
A proposal to shift from September 1 to July 1 the cutoff date for most youngsters starting Kindergarten or pre-K will rise again -- at least as part of the focus of a House interim study scheduled this week for Tuesday (October 4).
Head of the interim study (11-058) is state Rep. Dennis Johnson, a Duncan Republican, with a stated focus on the “age of children entering kindergarten.”
Johnson and public school teachers who want to see the start date shifted to allow a couple more months of maturity for new students will speak, as will an opponent, Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.
The Republican superintendent and her staff led the charge to kill the idea last spring. State Johnson pushed the idea, which is popular with classroom teachers, in the 2011 legislative session. His House Bill 1465 would have made the two month switch in the normal start date of formal schooling for state children.
Johnson’s proposal seemed headed to certain passage last spring.
Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, backed the measure, which prevailed 78-16 in his chamber. The bill then passed on a unanimous 45-0 vote in its first go-round in the Senate. Moving through the process after minor revisions, it cleared a House conference committee. Barresi then asked for the measure to be spiked in Senate conference, and it was.
Late in the legislative session, Superintendent Janet Barresi’s spokesman, Damon Gardenhire, sent a reply to a request for comment on the bill. He said in an email to CapitolBeatOK:
"Superintendent Barresi knows the authors of this legislation had good intentions. She agrees in an ideal world, kids should be home with their parents for as long as possible before entering school. However, that scenario isn't always the reality, and the Superintendent was concerned this legislation would discriminate against low-income families.
“Her primary concern was that this legislation would hurt parental choice by micromanaging what should be a family decision. She strongly feels that parents are best equipped to decide when their children are ready to attend school.”
As a practical matter, Rep. Johnson’s original idea would mean a child would have to be four by July 1 to enter Pre-K programs, and/or 5 by July 1 to enter kindergarten. However, Johnson and his allies had developed the proposal to allow a screening process for students who do not meet the chronological cutoff date, but who might be ready for school in developmental terms,
In the words of a knowledgeable analyst interviewed by CapitolBeatOK, H.B. 1465 would mean “students are slightly older when beginning school, increasing their level of readiness to grasp necessary concepts and likely reducing discipline and remediation problems.”
The legislation emerged originally after an interim study in 2010, although the matter was discussed during the 2009 session, as well. It has enjoyed strong support from Professional Oklahoma Educators, a statewide non-union association for teachers based in Norman.
POE members who responded to a survey last spring were overwhelmingly positive, and often passionate, in defense of the idea. The most consistent theme among the POE members was a shift of even two months would reduce discipline and remediation problems in pre-K and Kindergarten programs.
Among responding teachers, 96.7 percent believed the cutoff date should move from September 1 to July 1.
Johnson said during the session, “Kindergarten teachers are struggling with children who are simply not ready for school. This bill was requested by these kindergarten teachers. Their judgment is sound on this issue because they are the ones on the ground in classrooms statewide.”
The proposed text would have, if passed in the Legislature and signed by the governor, amended state law (70 O.S. 2001, Section 1-114) to provide, “A child who has reached the age of four (4) years after July 1 but on or before September 1 shall be entitled to attend an early childhood program if the child has been screened and determined to be ready to enroll in an early childhood program, using a readiness screening procedure approved by the school district and paid for by the parent or guardian.”
The measure also read, “A child who has reached the age of five (5) years after July 1 but on or before September 1 shall be entitled to enroll in kindergarten if the child has been screened and determined to be ready to enroll in a kindergarten, using a readiness screening procedure approved by the school district and paid for by the parent or guardian.”
The proposed law would make a similar time shift for first graders: “A child who has reached the age of six (6) years after July 1 but on or before September 1 shall be entitled to enroll in first grade if the child has been screened and determined to be ready to enroll in first grade, using a readiness screening procedure approved by the school district and paid for by the parent or guardian.”