Bill proposing mandatory kindergarten seeks to help children who might otherwise be left behind

Child smiles at camera, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Unsplash, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A bill proposing mandatory kindergarten is moving through the Utah legislature and is set to go before the committee Tuesday afternoon.

The Kindergarten Attendance Amendments bill, HB241, would change when a child is required to be enrolled in school to include kindergarten-age children and would require a local school board to provide certain information to the parent of a child excused from kindergarten attendance for home-schooling.

The chief sponsor of the bill, Rep. Lawanna Shurtliff, D-Ogden, told St. George News this bill is a necessary step toward making sure no child is left behind.

“A lot of the instruction has kind of been pushed into kindergarten now,” she said. “I think for many years we expected (kindergarten) was mainly social, for children to listen to someone read and get along with other friends. … But, we’re finding that children who are coming out of kindergarten now, most of them are reading and know their colors.”

Shurtliff said she wasn’t aware of this issue until she met with a group of teachers who were discussing children who were behind in coursework and the struggle in trying to figure out a way to get them caught up.

Enrolling children into kindergarten is currently a choice, and children aren’t required to be enrolled in school until age 6. This bill, if enacted, would redefine “school-age minor” to a minor who is at least 5 years old before Sept. 2 of that relevant school year, or otherwise eligible to enroll in kindergarten, but is younger than 18 years old and is not emancipated.

Utah State Board of Education member Michelle Boulter, who is opposed to the bill, told St. George News in an email that she does not agree with compulsory education in general and that the family is the most local form of government and elected officials need to respect that.

“When the government feels the need to mandate education, they are sending a message that parents cannot be trusted to teach or look after the needs of their children,” Boulter said. “A parent shouldn’t have to play ‘mother may I’ with people who have never even met their children.”

But this bill doesn’t take the children from the home, Shurtliff said in response to the push back. Parents would still be able to attain control and have the power to start their child later or excuse them for a long vacation just as if it were first grade.

“If the parents want to keep the child back because the child is immature, they can do that. They can wait and send the child to kindergarten when they’re 6,” she said. “If they decide they don’t want them to go to kindergarten, they can do that … they can home-school them.”

Washington County School District Communication Director Steven Dunham told St. George News the district is in support of the bill. Requiring kindergarten for children allows for consistency in meeting benchmarks in academics.

“We support it simply because you can’t teach them if you don’t have them,” Dunham said. “And you always worry about the academic performance if students aren’t in school. I know a lot of people feel like their child may not be ready. Some parents would prefer to home-school. Some people do a really good job with home-school, but there’s always variables in that.

Implementing the content of the bill in the district wouldn’t be difficult, Dunham said. The average attendance rate for kindergarten in Washington County is around 88%, he said, and for lower-income schools, that percentage jumps up to 94-95%.

“As we look at that, it obviously comes down to you have more working families. And so parents need the children to come to school, and it acts as a form of perhaps childcare for them,” he said.

If parents choose to home-school their children, the school board would be required to provide a kindergarten syllabus that would outline the knowledge, skills and competencies recommended for a child to attain before first grade.

“There’s always kind of been an unwritten rule that you couldn’t take the children from families. … I am not doing that,” she said. “It’s just the same as if it were the first grade.”

Had so much essential instruction not been pushed down into kindergarten, the case for this bill wouldn’t have been made, Shurtliff said.

“I’m just trying to make sure that all these children have a chance,” she said.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2020 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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