MONTGOMERY, Ala. – While a proposal to increase kindergarten enrollment failed to pass the Legislature this year, the bill’s sponsor is set on reintroducing it next year and is scheduled to meet this fall with its main opponent to hash out their differences.
Sponsored by Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, House Bill 43 would have required students to either attend kindergarten — which is currently not mandatory in Alabama and many other states – or pass a first-grade-readiness assessment. Warren has said that the bill is “truly needed,” as the disparity between students in first grade who have and have not attended kindergarten, she said, creates difficulties for teachers, as well as students.
According to the Alabama Department of Education, pre-COVID kindergarten enrollment numbers were slightly less than enrollment in first grade, with nearly 55,000 students enrolled in kindergarten during the 2018-2019 school year compared to around 59,700 in first grade.
Those numbers increased across the board during the 2019-2020 school year, with kindergarten enrollment at around 56,000 and first grade at around 56,200, though dropped sharply the following year due to the COVID pandemic. Kindergarten enrollment suffered the greatest casualty that year, with around 2,500 fewer students compared to the previous year.
And while kindergarten enrollment recovered during the 2021-2022 school year to around 57,000, actually eclipsing that year’s first grade enrollment of around 56,000, Warren has continued her efforts to increase kindergarten enrollment across the state.
Warren has carried the bill every year since 2019, though amassed an important supporter in 2023 after Gov. Kay Ivey publicly endorsed the measure during her State of the State address back in March. Ivey also continued to voice her support for the bill throughout the 2023 legislative session.
‘He just fights it constantly’
The bill, however, would ultimately never come up for a vote in the Senate. The reason, Warren said, was Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham.
“Sen. Smitherman is the only one that has held my bill up,” Warren told reporters after the end of the 2023 legislative session, her bill left on the cutting room floor.
Smitherman’s problems with the bill, mostly related to budgetary and logistical concerns, are something Warren said she hopes to resolve this fall.
“He said that we’re going to get together in September and come up with a bill that hopefully he can agree with and we pass,” Warren said. “So I will be back next year.”
Multiple attempts to reach Smitherman for comment were unsuccessful.
The bill sailed through the House Education Policy Committee and the House itself, passing with a vote of 91-5 in April, but saw its first opposition upon reaching the Senate Education Policy Committee, which Smitherman sits on.
Smitherman said he was opposed to the idea of “flunking” students that fail the first-grade-readiness assessment, which would require they attend kindergarten. Smitherman also expressed concerns of resources not being allocated to accommodate an increase in enrollment for kindergarten.
A fiscal note attached to the bill estimated that at most, the legislation could cost $8.4 million from the Education Trust Fund, and that it could increase kindergarten enrollment by a maximum of 4,000 students annually.
Despite his opposition, the bill passed the Senate committee, with the lone dissenting vote being Smitherman’s. And amid Smitherman’s opposition, the bill never came up for a Senate vote.
Despite the setback, Warren said she was willing to compromise on a number of Smitherman’s concerns in order to win his approval.
“He wants a line item in the budget next year for kindergarten, because he says if everybody comes, some of the schools are going to say they don’t have money to do the classes, so he wants to make sure that there’s enough money in the budget to deal with every kid,” Warren said.
“He (also) went as far as to say we need to do something for the parents, because his thing is what we’re confronted with now, a lot of these kids are born with mothers 14, 15 years old that never finished high school (and) have not really entered education. So he wants to see something that can help those parents understand how they need to get the kids ready for school. Those are some of the things that he threw out; I have no problem with it.”
As recently as last week Ivey’s office reaffirmed their support for the bill, with Gina Maiola, Ivey’s communication director, telling Alabama Daily News that “Alabama students need to be ready for the first grade, and this legislation would have provided an avenue for that.”
The 2024 legislative session starts Feb. 6 with Warren hoping to have her kindergarten bill not only pre-filed and ready to be discussed, but filed with the support of Smitherman.