Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Republican bill to move up the cutoff date to meet kindergarten age requirements passed the House Wednesday over Democrats' arguments that the measure is aimed at laying off teachers and denying early childhood learning opportunities.
The bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin was approved on a 68-30 vote after a spirited debate lasting more than an hour. The companion bill is awaiting a Senate vote.
Currently children must be 5 years old by Sept. 30 to enroll in kindergarten. The measure would move that cutoff date to Aug. 31 in the school year beginning in 2013, and to Aug. 15 the following year.
"There are an element in education that want to get children a universal education from the cradle to the grave," Casada said. "I strongly disagree with that.
"We want those young people at home with their family for the first several years of their life," he said. "That's where the most learning is and that's where the foundation sits."
Democratic Rep. Joanne Favors of Chattanooga pointed to her own experience as a mother of four children younger than 5 when she got divorced.
"Certainly it is always best to have the children home with the parents," she said. "But if that's not feasible — many of us had to go to work — you can't just make a blanket statement."
Casada said he disputes a fiscal analysis that the change would affect 4,200 children at an annual cost savings to the state of more than $21 million. Four-year-olds could qualify if they pass a maturity test.
Casada said the measure wasn't motivated by studies that suggest the move would improve educational attainment. But he argued that man teachers feel that four-year-olds often can't handle the kindergarten curriculum.
"I got dozens of letters from kindergarten teachers liking this bill," he said. "So I'm going to not rely on academia, and I do want to rely on the teachers."
Democrats argued that schools will use the decreased kindergarten enrollment as an excuse to fire teachers and not hire them back once the classroom sizes rebound.
That position drew the retort from Republicans that Democrats are more interested in protecting teaching jobs than promoting educational achievement.
"Too many times this bill has put the adults before the children," said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville.
Democratic Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville argued that any savings from the bill should be designated for pre-kindergarten classrooms, which would see even longer waiting lists for limited spaces.
"Unless we do that, this really defeats the purpose of education," she said. "Not everybody can stay home and take care of their children like they would like to. People have to work to eat."
Read HB2566 at http://capitol.tn.gov
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