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Capitol Notebook: Kindergarten requirement bill advances with newfound support

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY – A bill to require Alabama public school students attend kindergarten or take an assessment to go directly to first grade received its first vote of approval on Wednesday.

Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, has carried a kindergarten requirement bill for several sessions, always running into opposition from her Republican colleagues.

This year, she seems to have more support.

“This is her bill, but it is a priority bill for me,” House Education Policy Committee chair Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur said.

House Bill 208 would allow a 6 year old to bypass kindergarten if he or she “demonstrates first grade readiness on a district approved assessment.”

State Superintendent Eric Mackey last month told lawmakers that K-12 enrollment in the fall was down more than 9,000 students. Much of that is in the lower grades and attributed to health concerns and remote learning challenges caused by COVID-19.

Several school leaders last year told Alabama Daily News that this year’s missing kindergarten students will cause challenges next year.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia require that children attend kindergarten, according to the Education Commission of the United States.

Collins noted that more than 90% of elegible students in a typical year attend kindergarten in public schools. And many that don’t are in private or church-based programs.

But she said there are still some that arrive to the first grade unprepared.

“Not only do they not know their letters or numbers, they don’t know how to stand in a line or any of the other things they need to know to be ready to learn,” Collins said.

But not everyone is sold on the bill. Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, questioned the need for it and at one point asked Warren if her bill defines “kindergarten.”

“I understand what you’re trying to do,” he said. “But I struggle with a mandate.”

Later, Pebblin noted that Garrett had opposed the bill previously, but she would “make a believer out of him.”

Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, pointed to a 2019 law passed by lawmakers that puts an emphasis on early reading and says that starting next school year, third-grade students must have sufficient reading skills before they move to the fourth grade.

“We passed the Literacy Act, we said we wanted these children to read by the third grade,” Drummond said. “We need to start now.”

Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville, noted that the bill gives parents an option to have their child test into the first grade if they are ready.

“I wouldn’t want to send my children or grandchildren to the first grade unprepared,” he said.

Pebblin’s bill is now ready for a vote in the House. If approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, the bill would become effective three months later. Collins said there may be an amendment to make the law effective immediately, giving parents of young students more time to plan.

Tier II changes move forward

The same committee on Wednesday also approved a bill to modify retirement benefits for new teachers. Advocates say more attractive benefits, including the ability to rollover sick leave and collect retirement after 30 years, will help with the state’s teacher shortage.

As originally written, House Bill 93 by Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, would have also changed the death benefits of all retirement-eligible teachers, allowing the beneficiary to receive 100% of the teacher’s retirement should he or she die. Currently, beneficiaries receive 50% if the teacher is still working. They can get 100% if the teacher is retired.

Retirement Systems of Alabama chief David Bronner had advocated for the change, saying moving the death benefit to 100% would keep more retirement-eligible teachers in the classroom if they aren’t worried their families would be more financially hurt by their sudden deaths.

But Baker, who has tried for several years to get Tier II changes through the Senate, moved to strike the death benefit change in committee, saying it was too expensive.

House Bill 93 would also allow Tier II teachers to collect their retirement after 30 years of service, as opposed to waiting until age 62 under current rules, and allow them to rollover unused leave each year, which isn’t currently allowed under Tier II but is under the older Tier I.

Unlike his previous bills, HB93 does not increase the 1.65 multiplier, which determines how much retirees earn. The legislation does increase teachers’ contributions to their retirement from 6% to 6.75%.

Alabama Daily News previously reported that Baker’s bill becomes law, the 30-year retirement and sick leave conversion portions in the first year would represent a cost increase of about $5 million, about $3 million of that coming from the Education Trust Fund. The beneficiary change would have increased costs by about $12.9 million in the first year, with about $7.9 million coming from the ETF.

Tier II retirement benefits went into effect for new teachers in 2013 in an effort to save the state money on retirement costs. Teachers who were already in the classroom at that time got to stay in the more generous Tier I.

Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, who has previously approved Tier II change legislation in his education budget committee, spoke in favor of the bill Wednesday. As did Rep. Tracy Estes, R-Winfield, a former school board member.

“We have a teacher shortage and we have to be competitive with states around us,” Poole said. “We know this won’t solve the teacher shortage issue, but we know we have to recruit and retain.”

Estes is a former Winfield Board of Education member.

“I’ve sat around that table and watched how difficult it is to find teachers when you can’t compete with neighboring states,” Estes said. “And what’s sad is some of those states, we used to look down on. Now, we’re looking up at them.”

The Alabama Education Association favors Baker’s bill.

“(The association’s) predictions about the impact of Tier II have been proven correct,” President Sherry Tucker said in a written statement. “It is increasingly difficult to recruit new educators with the reduced benefits currently available under Tier II. Tier II employees are under a ‘use it or lose it’ sick leave policy resulting in educators using it and causing absentee issues for local school systems.

“We are hopeful the Legislature will correct these problems early in the session so reforms will be in place in time to hire new educators, and retain those early in their career, before the academic year ends this spring.”

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