Mandatory kindergarten debate heats up

Published: Mar. 23, 2017 at 1:55 AM PDT
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The first day of school could come much sooner for Nevada's kids. The Assembly Committee on Education debated a bill that would lower the age of mandatory school attendance from 7 to 5.

Assembly Bill 186 was introduced by Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz (D-Las Vegas), who says early childhood education has been proven to set children on the right track. The bill would also require all public elementary schools in the state to maintain a pre-kindergarten program and open enrollment up to 4-year-olds. She said the purpose of this mandate is to serve families who are in lower socioeconomic classes.

"Do we just look the other way and say so sad for you that you don't get this opportunity to start on a level playing field when you enter kindergarten?" she asked the committee. "Or do we realize that we have a lot of children who we're not servicing, who need a high quality pre-K program?".

The state already has some pre-K programs funded by grants. The assemblywoman says the state of Nevada is missing out on more federal funds by not offering more pre-K programs.

But participation in pre-K programs would be voluntary, unlike the mandatory kindergarten requirement. State law already requires school districts to offer kindergarten, but enrollment is still voluntary.

According to data from the 2010 census, there are 37,317 five-year-olds in the state of Nevada. 34,626 of them are already enrolled in kindergarten.

"I think that we're doing what the majority of parents are choosing to to do," Assemblywoman Diaz says.

Many members of the committee expressed their support for the bill, but questions were raised.

"I frankly have a lot of concerns over the logistics since we're so short teachers already, and we haven't established a pipeline for pre-K teachers," Assemblyman Chris Edwards (R-Las Vegas) said.

Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner (R-Reno) also voiced concerns that some people would view this bill as taxpayer funded babysitting. Assemblywoman Diaz says that is not the intention.

"My intent is long-term to satiate the need of pre-K, and I'm not delusional that we're going to get there tomorrow," she said. "But I think we need to start being very intentional. The reason I bring this forth is because the ball needs to start rolling and it's been long overdue.

But with such high voluntary kindergarten enrollment numbers, opponents of AB 186 say parents should be able to choose whether to let their children start school early.

"Our kids have access to kindergarten all day by age 5," Maggie England, a parent who opposes the bill, said to the committee. "There's no need to mandate it at five. They all have access already. This is only restricting parental rights over their child, and I don't think that's the place of the government."

Other parents also saw this bill as government overreach.

"I did not give birth so the state could have children," one mother again AB186 told the committee.

Others argued that one size doesn't fit all, that some children may not be developmentally ready to start school at five.

"Kids are all different," Karen England, executive director of the Nevada Family Alliance, said. "Their social needs, their emotional needs, their educational needs, their medical needs. We're all different. My three grandchildren could not be more different."

Assemblywoman Diaz says the bill does not take away a parent's right to choose private or homeschooling education as an alternative to public school. They would just be required to file the same notices and paperwork they would if they were making the decision for their 7-year-old. But it was unclear what parents would do if they want their child educated in a private school, but not until he or she was six or seven. Opponents also expressed concerns that parents would lie and use homeschooling as a loophole to avoid enrolling their child in school.

"You are forcing that parent to do one of two things," Karen England said. "Falsify a record and become a homeschooler for their child at the age of 5, and provide lesson plans and all the documentation. Or if they're not falsifying the record, force them to do what they genuinely believe is wrong for their child."

Concerns were also raised about logistics of implementing this bill. The state faces budget concerns, a teacher shortage, overcrowding, and buildings in disrepair. The bill contains an unfunded mandate, but the Assembly Committee on Education is a policy committee, not one that comes up with the funding to implement bills. While there's still work to be done on the bill, Assemblywoman Diaz maintained its importance.

"I know there's a concern about space," she said. "Schools are saying, 'How can we logistically make this happen? We don't have the space.' They're also saying they don't necessarily have the workforce of teachers that are licensed to teach early childhood class. But we to start coming together and figuring out how to overcome these obstacles because our children are definitely worth all of our time."

The committee took no action on the bill.