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Plans would let 4-year-olds enter kindergarten class

Lawmakers say pushing back cutoff dates for kindergarten can help parents. Critics say it can be bad for children.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Lawmakers are trying again to give parents the choice to send their 4-year-olds to kindergarten.

Florida law requires a child to turn 5 by Sept. 1 in order to start school in the fall. Similar proposals moving through the Legislature would push back the cutoff date until Dec. 1 or Dec. 31 for children who pass a readiness test.

"This simply believes in the ability of parents to make a decision that's right for their children," said state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican who is sponsoring one of the measures.

Last year, similar plans died in legislative committees which deal with fiscal issues. The proposals must survive the same committees during the next two weeks to be voted on by the full House and Senate. Gov. Jeb Bush has not taken a position.

Both the House and Senate versions of the proposal would take effect over four years, beginning in 2001. That fall, children could turn 5 as late as Oct. 1 and still get into kindergarten.

By 2004, children could turn 5 any time before the end of the calendar year and get into kindergarten, according to the House bill. The Senate version calls for a Dec. 1 cutoff.

State education officials estimate the House proposal would add 71,000 students to schools across the state by 2004 at a cost of $32-million in the first year alone.

Diaz de la Portilla, however, says the long-term costs would be "negligible" because children admitted early to kindergarten won't be attending school any longer than other students.

But critics, including some educators and lawmakers, argue that the proposal could carry an emotional price for students whose parents push them into school too soon.

In the early 1980s, lawmakers made a similar change in the law to allow 4-year-olds in kindergarten, said Marianne Easton, Pinellas schools' supervisor of early childhood development. When the district tracked a sample of the 4-year-olds through elementary school, some had no problems. But others struggled and even failed a grade, Easton said. Ultimately, the Legislature returned the cutoff date to Sept. 1.

"You want to know (children) are going to be very successful if you're going to change a year of their life," she said.

On Monday, state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, was the only Senate Education Committee member to vote against the bill.

"In my estimation, it's a bad idea for parents to overlook the emotional side of it, just because (their children) can do the work," Sullivan said.

Lawmakers have tinkered with kindergarten eligibility for years. Diaz de la Portilla's interest stems from a phone call he received from a working single mother in his legislative district whose child just missed the Sept. 1 cutoff.

Without her child in school, she couldn't go to work, Diaz de la Portilla said.

"It's something parents really care about," he said. "If we don't get it done this year, we'll be back next year."

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