Bipartisan group of state House members scrutinize Kindergarten starting date

 State House members from both political parties turned out in strong numbers for House Interim Study 11-058, headed by state Rep. Dennis Johnson of Duncan. The hearing focused on the “age of children entering kindergarten.”

The deliberations underscored a clash of visions between a statewide elected official – Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi – and a legislator, in this case Rep. Johnson. Both Barresi and Johnson are Republicans. While disagreements are frequent in public policy, unusual is the visible involvement of a statewide official in opposition to a House member’s interim study.

Johnson is the author of House Bill 1465, which would have shifted the starting date for taxpayer-financed Kindergarten education from September 1 to July 1. The measure would have allowed parents to pay for an evaluation of school readiness if they wanted to enter a child younger than the cutoff date into K and pre-K programs.

Johnson’s bill, popular with classroom teachers, passed both chambers of the Legislature before Barresi publicly opposed it last spring. She asked that it be spiked in a Senate conference committee, and it was.

Chairing the hearing was state Rep. Ann Coody, a Lawton Republican.  Attending the hearing and posing occasional questions throughout the session were Republican Reps. Corey Holland of Marlow, Dennis Casey of Morrison, Jadine Nollan of Sand Springs, Gus Blackwell of Lavern, Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City, and other GOP legislators, including Johnson.

Democratic members who participated included Democratic state Reps. Jabar Shumate of Tulsa (co-chairman of the panel), Jeannie McDaniel of Tulsa, and Ed Cannaday of Porum.

Questions, concerns or statements made by legislators in attendance could hint at the issues they will examine further before possible reconsideration of Rep. Johnson’s legislation in the 2012 legislative session.

Despite limitations of time, members were engaged in frequent exchanges with presenters, posing a range of questions about the details of early childhood programs, and the potential impact of the two-month shift in the cutoff for students.

Cannaday asked presenters about program details, oversight by the state Education Department, and the use of teacher evaluations. McDaniel wondered about the usefulness of existing screening programs, and what might happen to children held back one year. Shumate asked why a few states have settled on dates other than September 1 (as in Oklahoma and 40 other states) for the cutoff of Kindergarten entry.

Nollan was interested in data concerning family support or its absence, in pre-school years. Casey wanted to know if flexibility for local districts was possible, letting start dates be decided at that level.

Rep. Nelson wondered about the accuracy of reports that children attending early childhood programs are in some cases aggressive, perhaps indicating a lack of readiness for such education. He also was interested in where so-called “summer babies” (both in July and August) would be at the age of four and five, if not in Pre-K or Kindergarten classrooms.

Rep. Holland pressed in his questioning a theme focused on the purpose of schooling, wondering if it was for learning and instruction or for provision of social services. He gently challenged the premise that the state should be celebrating its niche as a “leader” in early childhood education, saying he had trouble reconciling that premise with the large number of third graders in the state who cannot read at their age level.

State Rep. Gus Blackwell, near the hearing’s end, observed that Barresi’s opposition to an Interim Study topic and to an individual legislator’s hearing on the matter was “unprecedented.”  He also jabbed at Tulsa businessman George Kaiser, a prominent advocate of early childhood education programs.  And, Blackwell challenged budget decisions Barresi and members of the state Board of Education made to fund early childhood programs, but not stipends for National Board Certified Teachers.