By RYAN QUINN
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislation that would change the age cutoff dates for when West Virginia children are required to enter kindergarten, required to be offered free kindergarten and required to be offered free prekindergarten has hit the House of Delegates floor in time to pass before the regular legislative session ends Saturday.
The bill (SB 186) would move from Sept. 1 to July 1 the cutoff date for when a child must be a certain age before being eligible, and eventually being required, to enroll in different levels of early education. July 1 is before the three months that, at least in recent years, have had the highest number of births.
The bill passed the state Senate 31-2 in mid-March, with Jeff Mullins, R-Raleigh, the only senator absent. Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam and the bill’s lead sponsor, said he spoke with about 45 teachers who were concerned children were starting school too early.
“They noticed that summer babies were having trouble, in kindergarten, starting in kindergarten, some of them were getting held back,” Jeffries said.
On Friday, the bill passed the House Education Committee in a voice vote with some nays heard, and it got its first of three required readings on the full House floor Saturday. The bill could pass the House early this week.
Starting in the 2018-19 school year, free early education programs would have to be offered statewide to all kids who are 4 years old by July 1, rather than Sept. 1, of the school year in which their families plan to enroll them. Public school systems’ fiscal years begin July 1, and each fiscal year contains a single school year.
Enrollment in 4-year-old prekindergarten would continue to be voluntary.
Beginning in the 2019-20 school year, county public school systems would be required to provide kindergarten to all children who reached the age of 5 by July 1, rather than Sept. 1, of the school year in which their families plan to enroll them.
Also effective as of the 2019-20 school year, all children who are 6 years old by July 1, rather than Sept. 1, of a school year must enroll in kindergarten. Home-schooled and private-schooled students could continue to be exempted from public school attendance.
John Unger, D-Berkeley, and Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, were the two senators who voted against SB 186 on the Senate floor. Unger expressed concern that change could widen existing gaps when young children don’t receive schooling.
Monica DellaMea, executive director of the state Department of Education’s Office of Early Learning, said the department is neutral on the bill. She said any gaps in early education that it could create would be “very few and far between.”
Unger highlighted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing July and August are the months with the highest number of live births. This is a national and state trend.
Provisional data from the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System show that in each of the last three years (though data isn’t yet available for October-December 2016) July, August and September were West Virginia’s top three months for births. In 2013, September wasn’t in the top three but August and July were No. 1 and No. 2.
In 2014, September was the high month with 1,833 births, compared to that year’s monthly average of 1,688. In 2015, August was the high month with 1,812, compared to that year’s monthly average of 1,687. In 2016, August, at 1,777 births, had the highest number out of the monthly data reported so far.
West Virginia’s Birth to Three program, according to its website, supports kids under 3 years old who have a developmental delay in one or more areas including learning, social/emotional skills and communication. It also supports children who have risk factors for delays, which can include “family stressors.”
“When that child turns 3- years old, that child is no longer eligible for Birth to Three,” Unger said on the Senate floor. “And it’s not until they turn 4 years old that they can go into early childhood education, so we already have a year gap.”
DellaMea, with the Office of Early Learning, said each county school system has an early entry policy that can allow children who don’t meet the age cutoff to possibly still enroll. She said parents can ask their local school system about its policy, which often “involves some sort of testing of the child to see where they’re at developmentally.”
“I think our schools are concerned that some children are just not developed to start really early,” Senate Education Committee Chairman Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, said on the Senate floor. “They need that extra little bit of time.”
He said children develop at different rates, including regarding when they know how to use the bathroom, and said that he thinks some teachers are having to both teach and “raise the children as well” at these early stages. He said teachers and parents had been requesting the change.
“This would kind of back it up to where the child would kind of have a little more time to develop age-wise and time to develop personal skills prior to entering school,” Mann said.
Unger asked Mann where else these children are going to learn these skills if they’re coming into early education without them, as the state is now attempting to delay their entry.
“Early childhood education is a whole different type of learning environment that teaches these skills for children,” Unger replied. “Where are these children going to go to get those skills if we’re not going to let them come into early childhood education?”
Mann said Unger’s point was “well taken,” and responded that “when people take on children, we’re going to have to get the message out there that they’re going to have to start taking responsibility.” Mann said he believes education starts at home, but also conceded that some people won’t provide their children with needed care.
“Those children there will have to wait an additional year, close to an additional year, before even getting into early childhood education,” Unger said. “Are you aware of this?”
“I’m just trying to put out and represent our educators and what they bring to me,” Mann said. Unger then raised concerns about having to pay the costs down the road, including prison costs, of not investing in education during the critical early development time.
“I started school at age 6, I didn’t have any of the pre-k, I just went to kindergarten a few days. So far I’ve not been incarcerated or anything like that. I’m still developing,” Mann replied, with a laugh. “My brain’s not there all the way just yet.”
During last year’s legislative session, lawmakers made another significant change to the state’s early education system, which has received praise in the past.
The state was to begin this school year requiring public schools to offer their free early childhood education programs five days per week, but the Legislature passed, and former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed, a law (SB 146) that changed the minimum day requirement into a requirement for at least 1,500 “minutes of instruction” per week.
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