By Sheria Reid
If North Carolina state legislators have their way, more than 15,000 children who turn five between September 1 and October 16 in 2009 will not be eligible to enroll in the state kindergarten program. House Bill 150 (H150) and an identical Senate Bill 751 (S751), propose to change the cut off date for initial school enrollment in kindergarten from October 16 to August 31, effective fiscal year 2009-2010.
Under the current law, as long as a child will be five by October 16, that child may enter kindergarten in August of the school year in which the child turned five. A child whose fifth birthday is as late as October 16 may enroll in a state funded program when school begins in August prior to the child reaching age five in October. The proposed bills, both entitled Every Child Ready to Learn, would not allow a child to enroll in August of that school year if he or she will not be five by August 31. If this legislation passes, a child who turns five after August 31,2009 will have to wait until the school year beginning in August 2010 to enroll in a state funded kindergarten program. The fiscal note for H150 estimates that the change would result in 15,360 fewer children statewide beginning kindergarten in August 2009.
Based on the title of H150 and S751, AN ACT for modifying the school admission requirements to ensure that every child is ready to enter kindergarten and thereby reduce student dropout rates in later grades, both bills are being presented as having the potential to address some of the troubles that currently beset public education in North Carolina–an unacceptable dropout rate and school readiness.
However, there is insufficient evidence to conclusively support that delaying initial enrollment in school will decrease the dropout rate in the future. However, there is research that suggests that low income children are disadvantaged by lack of a quality pre-school experience and that the disadvantage magnifies as they age, leading to higher dropout rates. A student that is older than his or her peers in that grade level is more likely to become a dropout statistic. The student who is six when beginning K or turns six within the first two months of beginning K, will reach the current legal dropout age of 16 nearly a full year before his or her peers.
The other stated purpose of these bills is to make certain children are ready to learn when they begin school. Unfortunately, there is no solid scientifically based research that conclusively supports the notion that a six year old is automatically more ready to learn than the same child was one year earlier without some intervening experiences designed to prepare the child to be ready to learn. In other words, just hanging around the house another year does not correlate with improved academic readiness for children who are already at-risk of academic failure.
A 2006 study on the impact of delaying initial entry into school, concludes that positive gains in achievement shown in students who are older when they begin school are more likely connected to their experiences prior to beginning school than any effect from delaying kindergarten for a year. In other words, middle class and higher children who have educational experiences prior to entering kindergarten benefit from the delay but no such benefit is seen for lower income children.
This change will most seriously impact children from lower income and working class families who are unable to afford private day care or pre-school, depriving them of any significant formal educational experience for as much as an additional school year. Under current law, the mandatory school age is seven; parents already have the option to choose not to send their child to kindergarten when he/she turns five. Some parents choose not to do so based on their beliefs as to the physical and emotional maturity of their child. The proposed change will only force parents who do not have options for providing a solid pre-school experience for their children to delay access to education for their children.
In addition, it is essential to weigh the economic costs to families of the proposed change on low-income and working class parents. They will have an extra year of child care expenses while waiting for their child to reach school age.
According to the fiscal note attached to H150, the proposed bills will have an economic benefit to state and local government. Assuming all factors remain constant regarding average daily membership, the fiscal note anticipates reduced state General Fund expenditures and reduced county government expenditures in public school spending for a period of twelve years beginning with implementation of the bill in 2009-10 fiscal year.