BATON ROUGE—Without taking any action itself, the House Education Committee on Tuesday forwarded a bill making kindergarten mandatory to the House Appropriations Committee to consider its possible $12 million price tag.
Lawmakers said the bill could cost the state that much if there were to be a 6% increase in kindergarten enrollment.
The bill, Senate Bill 10, would require children turning 5 by September 30th of a calendar year to attend kindergarten. Present law does not mandate kindergarten attendance. A child in Louisiana is not required to start attending school until age 7.
"Ninety percent of the brain development happens between birth and age 5," said bill author Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge.
Rep. Mark Wright, R - Covington, presided over the committee hearing because Speaker of the House Rep. Clay Schexnayder, R- Gonzales, asked House Committee Chairman Rep. Ray Garofalo, R - Chalmette, to step aside as chairman for the remainder of the legislative session.
The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus asked the speaker to remove Rep. Garofalo in April after his proposed legislation to ban the teaching of critical race theory came out.
"It is the Speaker's prerogative to choose who he wants to chair a committee," Garofalo said in a statement on Tuesday. "I have no problem with his exercising his authority, but I will not sacrifice my principles in doing what I know is right. My legislation is about protecting our children."
The kindergarten bill could keep advancing because the Legislature has lots of money to spend this year. Louisiana is receiving substantial federal COVID-19 relief funds, and the Revenue Estimating Conference projected Tuesday that the state will have over $300 million to spend next year than previously expected.
Any child younger than 5 may enter kindergarten if evaluated and identified as gifted by the Louisiana Department of Education.
Previous opposition came from lawmakers like Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, who stated that some children may not be ready for a structured day in kindergarten. The bill was amended in a Senate committee to allow kindergarten home schooling as long as the child is enrolled in a home-schooling program or a nonpublic school by age 5.
If children were to attend a home-schooling program for kindergarten, they would be required to take a readiness test to attend a public school for first grade.
"Our kids can't read. We are only at a 50% literacy rate for grades K through 3rd," said Sarah Vandergriff, legal and policy director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. "This is a strong message the state is trying to send that early learning is important."
Rep. Charles Owen, R-Rosepine, expressed hesitation on the bill because it does not include caveats for children moving into Louisiana from states that do not mandate kindergarten.
"I fundamentally object to the notion of kindergarten being mandatory," said Owen. "It is an infringement upon parental rights. Whatever we are doing may not be working now, but I am never going to willingly surrender the rights of parents."
Owen said he wants the entire Louisiana House to debate the bill and added that he will object to the bill on the floor.
Sen. Fields stated that for every dollar the state spends on education, there is a 7% return. He also stated that 18 states and the District of Columbia mandate kindergarten.
"This is a bill that makes sense," he said.
The bill passed the full Senate last week with only one vote in opposition.
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