Mandating kindergarten attendance in Mississippi
Published 7:00 am Saturday, September 24, 2016
Mississippi state law mandates that children must attend either a public or private school if they are 6 years of age by Sept. 1 of that school year.
For many of those directly involved in the education system, the compulsory age is astounding and troublesome.
Julie Dennis is a kindergarten teacher at Westside Elementary School in Picayune, and in her past 30 years as an educator, she has noticed a gap between students who have attended pre-K and those who haven’t.
“The children notice, too,” she said.
In her classroom of 17 students, each child has a different background and different skills set; some can write fairly legibly, some can read, and yet others are being introduced to formal schooling for the first time.
Dennis said she emphatically believes kindergarten should be mandatory for children once they reach 5 years of age.
According to the Education Commission of the United States, Mississippi is one of 35 states that does not require kindergarten attendance.
The organization also states Mississippi is one of 26 states that require children to enroll in school by the age of six.
“The earlier that kids are exposed to education, the better they do by the time they reach third grade,” Picayune Early Head Start Director Pam Thomas said.
In both the 2015 and 2016 state legislative sessions, the House Education Committee has been tasked with debating whether the compulsory school age should be reduced to include 5-year-olds.
The Kindergarten Increases Diplomas Act, or 2016 HB 1029, written by Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes of District 119, died twice in committee.
Rep. Mark Formby, of District 108, said just because a bill has been filed, “it doesn’t mean it’s on anybody’s radar screen.”
Formby said the committee hasn’t debated the bill to date, and he has no formal position on the matter.
Looking at both sides of the argument, Formby said some people argue that mandating kindergarten will allow children to get a jump on developing their reading and writing skills.
“However, I have read numerous articles by educational professionals that say while there may be some truth in that, by the end of first grade, you cannot tell who had kindergarten and who didn’t,” he said.
“I think that kids who have not been exposed to early education have to play catch up,” Thomas said. “They have to learn things that others learned when they were 2 or 3-years-old.”
This is coming “at a time when people are saying we’re not funding education enough,” Formby said, adding that education makes up 52 percent of the state budget.
Mandating kindergarten would increase school enrollment about eight percent based upon current grade levels, Formby said.
The state would then be responsible for funding those additional students, who, depending on their situation, could also qualify for free lunches, Formby said.
According to data from the Mississippi Department of Education, Pearl River County schools had 598 kindergarten students during the 2015-2016 school year; Picayune School District had 264, Poplarville Separate School District had 144 and Pearl River County School District had 190.
Statewide, there were 37,567 students enrolled in kindergarten classes the same school year.
Formby said those students are already being paid for by the state, and he was unsure of the additional cost to the state if all 5-year-old children were required to enroll.
In terms of the cost to the state, Formby said additional funds would be needed for classroom space, teachers, transportation and supplies.
“To me, education is about cost and return,” Formby said.
He also said that when he speaks with members of the education community, he receives mixed feedback about the issue.
Advocates of lowering the compulsory age also say attending school provides a valuable opportunity for socialization.
“Social skills are very important because children need to know what’s inappropriate,” Thomas said.
Students learn how to get along with other children, as well as adults and learn about respect and sharing, Thomas said.
“Their social skills formulate them as a person,” she said.
However, Formby said, “teachers tell me regularly that’s it’s not their job to socialize students; it’s their job to educate.”
The 2017 regular session for the Mississippi Legislature will begin on Jan. 3, and the deadline for the introduction of general bills and amendments is Jan 16.