Bill in Maryland Puts Spotlight on Readiness Debate

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A Maryland legislative proposal to lower the compulsory-school-attendance age from 6 to 5 has forced lawmakers to grapple with the complex web of factors that determine a child's readiness for school.

If the bill--which has passed the Senate and awaits action in the House--is enacted, Maryland would become one of the few states that have enacted laws in the past decade making kindergarten attendance mandatory.

The bill cleared the Senate on a 39-to-8 vote and is expected to win strong backing in the House as well.

As in other states, debate on the Maryland bill has highlighted the ways in which changing family structures, working parents, socioeconomic barriers, and differing maturity rates shape children's school readiness and educational needs.

At the same time, the movement toward earlier schooling is redefining the point at which the family's responsibility for stimulating young children's development ends and the state's begins.

And it is raising questions about how well suited kindergartens are to take on that task.

"It's good for children to get positive early experiences that help them grow emotionally, socially, and cognitively," said Ann Feldman, public-policy director of the Maryland Committee for Children. "But we really need to look at where the children are and how to provide those experiences."

"It's not a simple issue anymore," she added.

Mandating kindergarten attendance is one of several approaches being tried nationwide to ensure that all children are prepared to handle the rigors of 1st grade, which has become increasingly demanding as school reforms have raised academic standards.

One of the education goals set by President Bush and the nation's governors is to ensure that all children enter school ready to learn. Moreover, several states in recent years have pushed back the date at which children are eligible to enter school or offered prekindergarten and pre-1st-grade classes to give some children extra time to mature. (See Education Week, Feb. 28, 1990.)

Same Advantages for All

The majority of states require all school districts to offer kindergarten, and experts say the vast majority of age-eligible children do attend.

The Maryland education department estimates, for example, that 95 percent of the state's 5-year-olds are in public- or private-school programs.

"The problem is that the 5 percent who don't are often the ones who are very much at risk of school failure," said Bonnie S. Copeland, deputy superintendent of the department.

Advocates of compulsory attendance at age 5 say they want to be sure all children have the basic language and social skills to succeed in 1st grade--especially when they have no preschool experience or come from homes where educational stimulation from parents is lacking.

Proponents also say making earlier school attendance mandatory may be the only equitable way to stem disparities in the readiness of children whose families can afford preschool and those who cannot.

Pupils who start 1st grade with no earlier schooling "are not necessarily on the same footing" as those who do, said JoAnne Carter, chief of the language-development and early-learning branch of the Maryland education department.

Ms. Copeland said the proposal is also being promoted as "one of the strategies" toward achieving 10 goals established under the state's "Schools for Success" program.

Mirroring the national objective, the state has set a goal that by the year 2000 95 percent of all children will enter 1st grade ready to learn.

While the idea of helping prepare children for school has drawn broad support, however, the bill initially came under scrutiny from children's advocates, who said parents should be able to choose options tailored to their children's specific educational and day-care needs.

In response, the Senate amended the bill to exempt temporarily parents who enroll 5-year-olds in part-day Head Start or full-day child-care programs in licensed centers or registered family-day-care homes.

The exemption would be in effect for three years, during which time the education department would be required to conduct a study comparing the program approaches and the 1st-grade readiness of children in Head Start and day care versus public-school kindergarten.

"The legislature at this point is inclined to go with the broadest exemption necessary to get the program into effect as soon as possible," said State Delegate Dana Lee Dembrow, the bill's chief sponsor in the House.

But some involved in the debate dispute the basic premise that all 5-year-olds whose parents opt out of kindergarten stand to gain from schooling, arguing that some children would benefit more from staying home with nonworking parents.

"Why do we need to penalize those families who by choice want to keep their children at home until they are 6 years old ... where in fact there may be an advantage to be at home with Mom?" said Randy Reinhardt, headmaster of the Covenant Community School in Columbia, Md., and president of the Maryland Federation of Church Schools.

Child-Care Concerns

A key concern initially raised about the bill came from those worried about how it would affect other child-care arrangements.

The Maryland Committee for Children pointed out that many working parents choose full-time day-care programs over the half-day kindergartens funded by the state.

Ms. Feldman estimated that some 6,000 to 7,000 5-year-olds--more than twice the figure cited by the education department--are not in public school, and that many of those are in day care.

While applauding the state's efforts to promote early-childhood education, the committee feared the bill could "create more situations where children have to attend part-day programs," said Ms. Feldman. She also cited a severe shortage of child-care spaces for school-age children in the state--especially for young children in part-day programs--and problems arranging and paying for transportation.

"I don't think we are doing children any favors if we send them to a two-and-a-half hour program and then they are home alone for the rest of the day," she said.

In backing the exemption for children in licensed child-care centers or family-day-care homes, Ms. Feldman's organization testified that it would prevent "unfairly punishing parents who are trying to do their best to balance the many needs of their children."

The bill also accents the need to "look creatively at how to put services together for children of that age" and forge collaboration among education and child-care providers to make best use of limited funds, Ms. Feldman said.

When a similar bill was pending in Florida several years ago, the only opposition came from private child-care providers who worried it would cut into their business, according to Johann A. Chancy, director of elementary education for that state's education department. But they later found the impact was less severe than they had feared, she said.

'The Way It Was'

Another concern being raised in Maryland is that kindergartens that focus too heavily on cognitive skills may be inappropriate for less-mature 5-year-olds.

The Senate rejected an amendment by Senator John A. Cade that would have granted waivers to parents who deemed their 5-year-olds too immature for school.

But the issue still warrants attention, children's advocates say.

"Most legislators remember kindergarten the way it was when they went to school," said Ms. Feldman. "They don't know it's changed."

Ms. Carter of the Maryland education department noted that a Commission on the Early Years created by Superintendent of Schools Joseph L. Shilling in 1989 is drafting recommendations to ensure that programs for children ages 4 to 9 are developmentally appropriate.

The panel, which is looking at such issues as program organization, curriculum, teaching methods, and assessment, is expected to complete its work by June.

Early-childhood experts elsewhere have also underscored the need to ensure that compulsory-kindergarten programs meet the needs of children at various stages of development.

In a sample survey of 100 North Carolina kindergartens, researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center found that only 20 percent met their criteria for developmentally appropriate programs, while 60 percent fell well below them.

"If kindergarten is mandatory, we are going to have to redouble our efforts to make sure it is appropriate," said Harriet Egertson, administrator of the Nebraska education department's office of child development. Nebraska districts must offer kindergarten, but attendance is optional.

Sue Bredekamp, director of professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, also cautioned that making kindergarten a required grade level could legitimate testing and retention policies many experts find ineffective for young children.

Head Start, Home School

While the exemption granted under the Maryland bill applies to parents who place children in Head Start programs for 5-year-olds as well as licensed day care, some educators argue that Head Start and kindergarten are not substitutes for each other.

"We don't believe in Head Start that we should be offering a kindergarten curriculum," said Don Bolce, director of government affairs for the National Head Start Association. Head Start, geared for the period before formal schooling, is more play-oriented and focused on social and developmental growth than many kindergartens, he explained.

While supportive of "preventing children from being forced into environments that aren't right for them," Mr. Bolce also suggested that some children will still "need the kindergarten curriculum at some point before 1st grade."

Ms. Feldman also noted that the Head Start provision may have to be altered in the House, since under federal law children can be served in Head Start only up to the age of compulsory school attendance.

Parents who feel their child is too young for school, the bill's backers stress, can still apply for home schooling under state law.

But some parents say they still should have the choice to keep children at home, even without a schooling program.

Philip L. Buck, headmaster of the Lamb of God School in Arbutus, Md., and a parent who chose that option, agreed that programs for disadvantaged children are appropriate. But, he added, "to mandate that everybody has to attend is an infringement on families that are working well."

Such critics also maintain there is no evidence to support the view that children who start school earlier have more success. They also claim children's readiness should be keyed to their developmental level rather than their chronological age.

To address concerns about what age is most appropriate, one approach that may be eyed in the House is to mandate kindergarten attendance without changing the compulsory entry age, Ms. Feldman said.

The bill's potential cost has also raised some eyebrows.

While the Maryland Congress of Parents and Teachers supports the current proposal, for example, "We're concerned about where the money is going to come from," said Edwina L. Green, the group's president.

To ensure that state aid reaches school districts in time to accommodate new kindergartners, the Senate amended the bill to delay implementation from July 1991 to July 1992.

But the Maryland Committee for Children warns that schools still may not be equipped to offer the small classes experts recommend.

Route to Equity

According to data from the Florida Department of Education, which conducts an annual survey on state entry-age policies, and the Education Commission of the States, roughly half a dozen states either mandate kindergarten attendance or compulsory schooling at age 5. But many have liberal waiver policies and most allow children to attend private programs or be schooled at home.

Arkansas passed a bill in 1989 requiring 5-year-olds to attend school, but granting parents waivers if they want their children exempted. Districts have the option to test children who enter school at 6 and enroll them in either kindergarten or 1st grade.

Other states with a compulsory entrance age of 6--such as Louisiana and Virginia--also allow districts to test pupils' readiness for 1st grade and place them in kindergarten or 1st grade accordingly.

South Carolina approved compulsory kindergarten attendance as part of a 1984 education-reform law, but grants waivers to parents. Officials note, however, that fewer than than 1 percent of parents seek waivers.

Florida, which requires either enrollment in a public-school kindergarten or successful completion of a private program, grants exceptions to children transferring from states with differing age policies.

Delaware made attendance mandatory at 5 in 1984, granting waivers for home schooling or children in private programs.

"The population of children attending kindergarten only changed by 1 or 2 percent," suggesting most were already "in some form of school," said Darlene Bolig, the Delaware education department's supervisor of elementary education.

She added, though, that making attendance mandatory had helped ensure state funding for kindergarten.

To some early-childhood experts, the notion of making kindergarten attendance mandatory seems curious given the relatively small numbers of eligible children not enrolled.

"In some ways, it's an odd mandate," said Ms. Bredekamp of the N.A.E.Y.C., who added that the benefits hinge on whether the children affected are those most in need or those whose parents "are available at home and spending the kind of time that compensates for a lack of kindergarten."

But Ms. Egertson of Nebraska suggested that mandating attendance at 5 may be the only way to address "disparities or inequities that arise" when middle-class parents delay children's school entry, giving them the advantage of an extra year that often includes preschool.

"It's not a conspiracy by any means," she said, "but it has the effect of placing children who have less family resources at risk because they don't have the same opportunity to go to preschool or be older when they go to school."

Vol. 10, Issue 27, Page 1, 24

Published in Print: March 27, 1991, as Bill in Maryland Puts Spotlight on Readiness Debate
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