BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — All 5-year-old children in Louisiana should receive a kindergarten education, lawmakers decided Wednesday.
With one day remaining in the legislative session, lawmakers sent the measure by Sen. Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat, to the governor’s desk. The Senate voted 38-0 for the final version of the legislation, while the House backed it in a 70-32 vote.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards supports the bill and will sign it into law.
The requirement will take effect with the 2022-23 school year. It is estimated to add up to 2,800 students to kindergarten rolls when the mandate starts.
Louisiana children currently must attend school from the ages of 7 to 18, unless they graduate early from high school. Fields’ bill will require kindergarten attendance for children who turn 5 years old by Sept. 30 of each year. A parent can defer the kindergarten enrollment if the child is 4 years old on the first day of school or if the child is enrolled in a pre-K program.
Supporters said mandatory kindergarten will help children from falling behind, noting studies show 90% of brain development happens between birth and age 5. They said 19 other states require mandatory kindergarten, including Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas, and they said those Southern states with mandatory kindergarten have higher literacy rates than Louisiana. And they noted that barely half of Louisiana’s students in grades K-3 are reading on grade level today.
Fields called the legislation “one of the most important bills I have this session.”
“Investing in early childhood education makes a big difference for the state of Louisiana. There’s nothing more important we can do for kids,” he said during a House budget review of the bill. “When you invest in kids early in life, they tend to do better.”
Lawmakers in prior years had refused to require students to attend kindergarten, but an increased focus in Louisiana on early childhood education appears to have swayed some votes.
Opponents — largely a group of conservative lawmakers in the House — said parents should be allowed to make decisions about their children’s education and shouldn’t be at risk of fines or jail time for refusing to send a child to kindergarten.
“How do we know that being with family is not more important than being in school?” Rep. Raymond Crews, a Bossier City Republican, said during committee debate. “To me this looks like we’re trying to parent our children through schools.”
The bill has provisions to allow families to homeschool their children for kindergarten if they report that information to the state Department of Education.