Mandatory school at age 6?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 26, 2012

Local superintendents are in support of a proposed bill to that would lower the mandatory school-start age for children from 7 years old to 6 years old.

The bipartisan bill is slated for introduction in the 2012 legislative session, which will convene on Tues., Feb. 7, and was pre-filed by Rep. John Merrill, R-Tuscaloosa, and Sen. Priscilla Dunn, D-Bessemer.

Their legislation also would change the birthday cutoff date for school enrollment from Sept. 1 to Aug. 1 for first grade.

The rollback is important because under the current law, with schools starting in mid-August and with a Sept. 1 birthday cutoff date, a child can be nearly 8 years old before he or she has to enter the first grade.

Andalusia City School superintendent Ted Watson said it could help identify student academic problems earlier.

“And that’s the main reason why I would support the measure,” he said. “Early intervention is key to making sure any learning problems or disabilities are found. Because the sooner those things are found and addressed, the better it is for the student, the teacher and ultimately, the community.”

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Michael Smithart, Opp City Schools superintendent, of the proposed change. “Research has proven that the earlier a student begins involvement in a structured learning environment, the more likely he or she is to succeed.”

Smithart said he didn’t expect the change to be a “significant impact” on the system’s enrollment numbers – if the bill is approved by the legislature.

“We have relatively few students who delay enrollment,” he said. “Most everyone is already enrolling their children in kindergarten at age 5.”

Under the proposed bill, the kindergarten cutoff date for children 5 years old would be changed from Sept. 1 to Aug. 1. Kindergarten in Alabama is voluntary.

Supporting mandatory attendance at age 6 are VOICES for Alabama’s Children, the Business Council of Alabama, the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, the Alabama Department of Education, the Alabama Association of School Boards, the School Superintendents Association of Alabama and the Alabama Education Association.

VOICES said children develop 85 percent of their intellect, personalities and skills by age 5.

This is not the first proposal of the bill. In 2011, Merrill’s bill passed the House, 58-30, and made it to the Senate calendar. Dunn withheld her Senate bill when Merrill’s started progressing.

Alabama’s compulsory education law requires students to attend school between 7 and 17 years of age. All states adjacent to Alabama have laws requiring mandatory education beginning at age 6.

The bills would require any child who turns 6 by Aug. 1 to be enrolled in a public, private, or church school, or be tutored or home schooled.