A group of small children with a teacher sitting on floor and learning about space together at kindergarten.
The future of a bill that would effectively mandate kindergarten in Alabama still faces an uphill battle, even as members of a state education commission said that they support the bill.
During a Wednesday meeting of Governor’s Commission on Teaching and Learning — a group of educators, lawmakers and officials — State Superintendent Eric Mackey said the Literacy Act, a law that will retain third-graders if they are unable to read at grade level, has led many principals to focus on first grade.
The superintendent, in a presentation on the newly released ACAP scores, said that some are retaining first graders if they believe they are at risk of retention later in their academic careers.
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“When you get that before third grade, that’s all the better, which is why I think what we hear from our principals are doing is largely focusing on first grade,” he said.
Mackey also said that principals want to learn who’s on track in those early years, but the assessments they have do not currently track as well with the state test.
Rep. Alan Baker, R-Atmore, had also said that it was important that they focus on grades before first grade.
“And that really captures really what it’s about, that is the prevention that is identifying those students early on, early as possible,” he said. “And then providing the necessary interventions and supports all the way through and not just waiting.”
Some commission members had questions about why kindergarten was not mandatory in the state and if there was a way to make it mandatory.
Carey Wright, former Mississippi State Superintendent of Education and a member of the panel, said that Mississippi had been able to mandate mandatory attendance for those who enrolled in kindergarten.
“And that helped a lot with our kindergarten in terms of first grade readiness,” she said.
The Alabama House of Representatives last spring passed a bill known as First Grade Readiness that would have required a student to pass kindergarten or an equivalent test showing readiness for first grade. The bill passed out of a Senate committee but did not come to the Senate floor for a vote.
Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, said that the biggest opposition was “one senator,” as many in the room laughed.
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, spoke multiple times in opposition to the bill. He said it felt like it would hold more students back.
At the end of the session, Smitherman and the bill’s sponsor Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said they would discuss the bill further in the fall.
A message was left with Warren Wednesday afternoon. As of 2020, only 19 states and the District of Columbia required students to attend kindergarten, according to NCES.
Smitherman, reached Wednesday afternoon by phone, said that his stance on the bill has not changed since the end of the legislative session. He said he is still planning to meet with Warren later this fall, though not in the next couple of weeks.
“It will be addressed, but right now, there’s no scheduled meetings at this time,” he said.
Smitherman cited concerns about the bill including retaining students and a lack of infrastructure to support the needs of first grade readiness, such as busing.
“It’s a great soundbite, and it’s a great, it’s an ambitious goal,” he said. “But we can’t help these children like we need to unless we put the proper structure, the proper resources, and have the proper instructors there.”
Supporters of the first grade readiness bill insisted during debates over the legislation that it was not a mandatory kindergarten bill. But Brown, the Montgomery Public Schools superintendent, wondered why the state could not simply mandate kindergarten, without the extra test.
“What I’m imagining in my mind is: I’m going to get my driver’s license, and my test run is an IndyCar race,” he said. “If I crash, now, I got to go back to school to take the test. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. I want to get them on the front end.”
“Some of us agree with you,” said Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile. “At least in the House.”
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