BY BOBBY HARRISON
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – More than 20 years after the historic Education Reform Act of 1982 mandating school districts to offer public kindergarten, members of the House of Representatives proved Tuesday the issue still can stir emotions.
In a December 1982 special session called by Gov. William Winter, the Legislature took the unprecedented step of enacting public kindergarten as the centerpiece of numerous education reforms.
The special session has been cited by Winter and many others as an indication of a change in politics where public education became one of – if not the most important issue in state government.
On Wednesday, 20 years later, the issue of public kindergartens was debated again in the House. The House passed legislation that would require students enrolled in public kindergarten to actually attend school.
“This (legislation) could solve the problems a lot of school districts have where kindergarten is treated kind of like a day-care,'' said Judy Rhodes, director of education accountability at the state Department of Education. “It would be better to get the child in kindergarten on a regular basis.''
Under current law, Rep. Mike Lott, R-Petal, said on the House floor that there are parents who send their children to kindergarten when it is convenient and when it is not they let them stay home.
The bill that passed Wednesday requires students enrolled in kindergarten to attend school just like other students.
The Senate passed the legislation earlier this session. It now goes to Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.
On Wednesday, the bill passed the House 92-27, but not without some intense debate.
Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville, offered an amendment to mandate that 5-year-olds attend kindergarten. Franks said in many cases students who do not attend kindergarten start the first grade behind, forcing teachers to give specific instruction to them to help them catch up to the rest of the class.
School districts cannot force students to attend kindergarten.
House Education Committee Chairman Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive, argued against mandating kindergarten.
“A child needs to be a child,'' Warren said to whoops and yells from the membership. “If parents don't want to put their children in kindergarten, they shouldn't have to send them.''
Franks' amendment mandating kindergarten was defeated on a voice vote.
The original bill would not mandate kindergarten. But if parents choose to send their children to kindergarten, the children are required to attend on a regular basis. Parents would have one opportunity to remove their children from kindergarten without breaking the compulsory school attendance law.
Lott said the bill was needed because the sporadic enrollment in kindergarten by a few students resulted in local students districts losing money from the state because their average daily attendance dropped when the children did not attend kindergarten.
By the same token, the districts still had to pay for an extra kindergarten teacher to prevent the class from being overcrowded when the children, who attended on a sporadic basis, did show up.
Some members of the House opposed the legislation even though it did not mandate public kindergarten. Rep. Joey Grist, D-Bruce, said parents should have the right to keep their kindergarten-age children at home and spend time with them if they wanted.
He said the public kindergartens that were created by the 1982 Education Reform Act “didn't do one thing'' to improve education.