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Two-Tiered School-Entry Age Approved in Virginia

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The Virginia legislature has passed a controversial measure raising the kindergarten-entry age for most pupils.

The measure, which last week awaited the signature of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, would permit younger children to enter school in districts that offer two-year kindergarten or 1st-grade classes.

Under a 1985 law, Virginia children must have had their 5th birthday by Sept. 30 in order to enter kindergarten in that year. School districts had the option, however, of admitting at parents' request 4-year-olds born before Dec. 31.

The bill approved by lawmakers this month would make the Sept. 30 cutoff date mandatory, after a three-year phase-in period.

Backers of the bill cited concerns that increasingly demanding curricula in the early grades were driving up kindergarten failure rates.

The measure also was crafted to address concerns about the potential disadvantages of delaying school entry for at-risk children. Backers had argued that vulnerable children whose parents cannot afford private preschool programs may face greater barriers to success if they are held back an extra year. (See Education Week, Feb. 28, 1990.)

Before clearing the measure, legislators approved an amendment granting an exception for districts that offer two-tiered kindergarten or 1st-grade programs.

Under the measure, districts that offer such programs could admit children whose 5th birthdays fell between Sept. 30 and Dec. 31 if "an appropriate readiness evaluation" indicated it would benefit the child.

Two-Tier Exemption

The amendment's backers argued that so-called "transitional" programs give immature children an extra year of "developmentally appropriate" experiences before they must tackle formal academics.

But critics cited data showing extra-year programs provide little long8term benefit--and may segregate or stigmatize at-risk children and widen disparities in pupils' school readiness. The state education department had recommended scrapping transitional programs and revamping all kindergartens to meet pupils' differing developmental needs.

Before adopting the measure cleared by the House, the Senate also extended the September-cutoff exemption to districts that offer "developmental" kindergartens.

But the Senate refused to accept a House amendment that would have waived the cutoff for districts in which 25 percent or more of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. The amendment would have exempted more than half of the state's school districts.

Revamped Child-Care Rules

Also awaiting Mr. Wilder's signature last week was a bill making major changes in state child-care licensing laws.

Beginning in 1992, the bill would impose licensing requirements on several categories of care that had been free from regulation. They include preschools and nursery schools, before- and after-school care, hospital- and government-sponsored child care, and day care for groups of 6 to 12 children--counting the provider'schildren and those of relatives--offered in private homes. Summer camps that allow children to be enrolled for continuous sessions also would be subject to regulation.

Church-sponsored child-care centers would still be eligible for a regulatory exemption, but the state social-services commissioner would be authorized to investigate complaints.

Family day-care homes serving up to five children--the most common form of care for infants in the state--also would be left unregulated.

Lawmakers "still refuse to confront that problem," said Peg Spangenthal, chairman of the State Child Day Care Council, which has responsibility for licensing.

"The legislature is being shortsighted," she argued, "about recognizing that these small family day-care people are in business and should be regulated like other businesses."

Under the measure, the council would work with the state education department and other agencies to establish regulations for before- and after-school care. The bill also directs the council to work with an interagency panel on child care and early-childhood programs to set standards for developmentally appropriate programs for at-risk 4-year-olds. The legislature has set a target date of 1995 to offer such programs statewide.

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