Q & A: Kindergarten Start Date Bills

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kindergarten, preschoolQuestions and Answers with Matt Gillard & Teri Banas

What’s happening?  

The Michigan Legislature is considering two senate proposals – Senate Bill (SB) 315 and 316 – that would change the eligibility date for starting kindergarten. Presently, a child in Michigan must be 5 years old by Dec. 1 before he/she is permitted to begin kindergarten in the fall of that year. In other words, a child can begin kindergarten at age 4 as long as they turn 5 by Dec. 1 of that school year, under the state’s current policy.

However, SB 315 would move the eligibility date back from Dec. 1 to Sept. 1 beginning in the 2012-2013 school year. This means a child would have to be 5 by Sept. 1, 2012 in order to be eligible to start school that year. While SB 315 deals with changing the state’s policy on kindergarten eligibility, SB 316 addresses the state appropriations side of the issue. As a result of an eligibility change for kindergarten, this bill would adjust state funding to school districts through the state’s foundation allowance.

What could this mean?

It is anticipated that as many as 25 percent of currently eligible students would not be able to start kindergarten if the eligibility date is changed to Sept. This could result in as many as 20,000 fewer children starting kindergarten next fall. (There would be exceptions to the rule. See question below.)

The Senate Fiscal Agency estimates the state would save a considerable amount of money if the eligibility date is changed. At 20,000 fewer kindergarteners next year, the savings to the state could reach $146 million. The state’s gain, though, would equate to a $146 million loss in foundation allowances to school districts statewide.

What are implications for early childhood? 

It is anticipated that early childhood advocates will strongly fight for all or most of this money to be invested in quality early childhood programs, including preschool.

What’s happening next?

The legislature is just beginning deliberations on these bills with committee hearings expected to be scheduled soon. Some major discussion points:

  • Whether or not to phase the change in over a two- or three-year period, and
  • Whether the waiver process should be standardized for all districts. Also,
  • It’s expected there will be tremendous debate over what to do with the savings to the state as a result of seeing fewer kindergarteners enrolled in the 2012-2013 school year.

How is support and opposition lining up?

School districts and administrators are generally opposed to making the change. Not only is there a concern for a big hit in the state foundation allowance for that year, but districts would be challenged with trying to adjust their staffing levels for that one year.

There is no real organized support for making the change, but there is some rationale for it. In part, there’s a desire to align Michigan’s kindergarten start date with other states as there is a clear trend toward earlier cutoff dates for kindergarten students nationwide.

How does Michigan now compare to national trends on the issue?

The nation is moving to fewer 4 year olds starting kindergarten. Based on recent data from the Education Commission of the States, 83 percent of states with a cutoff date set that date in September or earlier. Michigan is one of only two states with a Dec. 1 cutoff date. (Two others set their cutoffs later – on Dec. 2 and Jan. 1.)

Does SB 315 allow for any exceptions in its proposal?

Yes. SB 315 provides for waivers for parents and guardians. Families would have to make an application to the principal of the school in which the child would enroll by May 1, four months before the start of the upcoming school year.

The principal would then have to bring the application before a school committee made up of a school administrator and two teachers. This group would evaluate the child’s kindergarten readiness with a skills level assessment. The committee would also interview the child and the parents or guardian. Notification of the committee’s decision would have to be made by July 1, just prior to the start of the school year.

How many exceptions could be sought and granted?

No one knows. And therefore it’s unknown at this point how much smaller the incoming kindergarten class would be in 2012-2013, if these bills are enacted. It could be as high as 20,000 children, or somewhere below that.

Is kindergarten mandatory in Michigan?

No it is not. Michigan is among 36 states offering optional kindergarten education. Twenty-three states, including Michigan, require students to begin school by age 6.

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