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As State Pushes Early Education, Kindergarten Age Hangs In The Balance

Read to Succeed volunteer Kevin Noe helps two Glen Acres Elementary School students prior to the Walmart Foundation awarding a grant to the program.
David Shank
Shank Public Relations Counselors
Read to Succeed volunteer Kevin Noe helps two Glen Acres Elementary School students prior to the Walmart Foundation awarding a grant to the program.

Proposed legislation this General Assembly sought to make kindergarten mandatory for Hoosier children by lowering the compulsory school age from seven to five.  It’s an issue that has lawmakers and educators split -- even as the state focuses on funding early education initiatives.

Count to 100 by ones.

Solve real-world problems that involve addition and subtraction.

Understand how a nonfiction book is organized.

Those are the some of the more than 60 skills five-year-olds are expected to learn now in Indiana’s public kindergartens.

And they’re the same skills that could cause a student to struggle during first grade if they’re not exposed to them earlier.

“I am hoping they are going to be able to read and write and do their math and be able to count and recognize numbers. You know, we are doing a lot with number sense and -- it’s unbelievable,” says Karen Berman, a 24-year kindergarten teacher at Indianapolis' Greenbrier Elementary.

Today, students in her Washington Township class use interactive technology, shout out fractions during group number games and learn how the government works.

Kindergarten, Berman says, is the new first grade.

“I think you have to mandate kindergarten," Berman says. "What difference does it make if you put them in pre-k and they don’t go any further? And then go to first grade -- they are still going to be behind. Yes you have to have the pre-k, there is no question about it, but you have to mandate kindergarten.”

But compared to the nation, Indiana is not out of step. Only 15 states require children to attend kindergarten at age five and 35 states, including Indiana, don’t require kindergarten at all, according to the Education Commission of the States.

This year, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Indiana State Teachers Association made mandatory kindergarten one of their top legislative priorities.

But two bills to do just that never even made it out of committee.

House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis) says there is no need to lower the compulsory school age from seven to five because most children already attend classes at age five. And Behning says parents should have the choice whether to send them.

“I just don’t see it as quite a big an issue as maybe some do because of the 97-percent attendance,” Behning says.

So, do such a high percentage of Indiana kids attend kindergarten? That depends on who is doing the counting and how.

Behning’s estimate used state Department of Education data and is the simple difference between first graders enrolled in 2014 and kindergartners enrolled in 2013.

But that data that doesn’t include schools not accredited by the state or homeschooled students.

A recent report by Education Week came up with a very different estimate. Using current Population Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Ed Week report found less than 74-percent of eligible Hoosier children were enrolled in kindergarten programs in 2013 -- a rate that puts Indiana near the bottom of the country for kindergarten enrollment.

“Really what it comes down to is there are people who are still in the state of Indiana, legislators who make laws, that don’t believe we should be in the business of telling parents when to send their child to school until they are at least seven," says Sen. Greg Taylor (D-Indianapolis), who authored one of this year's bills. "Whereas we all know, the kids who go to pre-k and kindergarten actually have more success.”

Taylor says there is a disconnect among lawmakers who support the "On My Way Pre-K" pilot but reject debate about the merits of lowering the mandatory age for school.

But Behning disagrees. He’s says the ongoing investment in pre-k is proof the state is making strides in early education.

“If you are going to take advantage of the preschool option, you are going to take advantage of kindergarten," Behning says. "Because obviously we don’t want to have the successes we get in preschool and have them walk away. Logically, that is not going to happen anyway.”

Indiana University early childhood education professor Mary McMullen understands lawmakers’ differing opinions and is also torn on the issue.

On one hand, McMullen worries for the children left at home in front of a television with a family member. But on the other, she questions whether Indiana is ready for  such a change or has enough qualified early education teachers.

“The whole birth to age 6-7 has to be reconsidered in this state and we are doing many, many fine things," McMullen says. "But before we tread into requiring kindergarten, or before we know what that either means or who would be in charge of the kindergarten curriculum -- I recommend against it.”

No matter what happens with state policy, kindergarten teacher Karen Berman says she and other teachers will strive to teach and nurture their students.

“The bottom line is we want them all to be successful and have self-confidence," Berman says. "And the only way you are going to have self-confidence is if you can achieve certain goals. As long as we make sure that they have a solid foundation that other teachers can build on -- that’s the goal.”