ALBANY – All 5-year-olds in Buffalo will be required to attend kindergarten under legislation that received final approval from the State Legislature on Wednesday.
The move, advocates say, will both boost early learning and eventually help improve high school graduation rates.
After passage in the Senate last week, the Assembly approved the measure that will no longer allow Buffalo parents the option of keeping their children at home or in day care or Head Start programs. Beginning this fall, 5-year-olds will be required to be in formal, full-day kindergarten.
School officials say compulsory kindergarten will have a dramatic impact, drawing in students not in school, improving high absentee rates for current kindergarten students and leading the district to seek additional state funding to expand prekindergarten programs.
A School Board official said kindergarten absenteeism rates are second highest only to ninth-grade levels in Buffalo schools.
“School Board members and I believe that the earlier students are in school, the better off they will be prepared to be successful academically,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat who sponsored the bill along with Buffalo Republican Sen. Mark Grisanti.
School Board officials say parents in Buffalo often don’t take attendance for kindergarten classes seriously because it has not been mandatory for 5-year-olds. State law requires children from ages 6 to 16 to be in a full-time school program.
“We have to front-load education when children are young, curious and engaged, and that means making sure children attend kindergarten,’’ said Buffalo School Board member John Licata, who has been the primary force in pushing for mandatory kindergarten.
Interim Buffalo School Superintendent Will Keresztes said Wednesday night that the bill’s impact is expected to hike kindergarten enrollment by 10 to 30 percent, adding as many as 600 students, depending on the year and population trends.
Moreover, he said, 48 percent of this year’s class of kindergartners had chronic or severely chronic absentee levels, which means they missed as much as 20 percent of the school year.
“We’ve been convinced part of the reason for that is the lack of a compulsory requirement,” he said.
Keresztes said the district also believes that requiring 5-year-olds to attend kindergarten will heighten interest by parents in sending their children to prekindergarten programs when they are 4. With the passage of the bill Wednesday night, he said, the district will now be “assertively pursuing” money from the state – enacted as part of this year’s state budget – for a sharp expansion of prekindergarten classes.
Statewide, Rochester, Syracuse and New York City already require kindergarten attendance by 5-year-olds, and lawmakers approved the same mandate for children in Utica last week.
Licata said many 6-year-olds are entering the Buffalo school system for the first time and going into first grade without reading readiness or the kind of social skills helpful in a classroom setting.
“It’s not the child who is the problem. It’s the fact that it’s not compulsory,” he said of the current kindergarten age requirement.
As for enforcement, Licata said parents who do not comply could be forced, through child protective service agencies, to send their children to kindergarten. But he believes the measure’s passage – it is likely to be signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – will send the needed message to parents “that it is no longer an option” to keep 5-year-olds out of kindergarten.
Backers say the long-term impact on graduation statistics might not be seen for 12 years. In 2012, the high school graduation rate in Buffalo was 48 percent.
Licata said there is plenty of space in existing Buffalo schools to handle the increased attendance and that hiring new teachers and aides will cost about $2 million or so per year.
The school bill is among the hundreds that have been in play this week as the Legislature looks to end its 2014 session either today or Friday.As always at the end of session, the halls are filled with paid lobbyists, citizen lobbyists and groups representing every imaginable concern. Industry groups, including chemical companies, are fighting back against health and consumer groups pushing for a measure to have the state start to restrict or require disclosure of certain kinds of chemicals in consumer products, particularly products used by children.
The food industry, meanwhile, is pulling out the stops to block a bill to require the labeling on food products that contain genetically engineered materials.
Cuomo and legislators Wednesday afternoon agreed on an 11-bill package to combat rising heroin and prescription opioid addiction in some areas of the state. In Erie County, the number of people seeking treatment for addiction to those drugs has doubled to nearly 5,000 in 2013, according to state statistics, and advocates say treatment demand is far higher than available slots.
The agreement puts new requirements on insurers to cover addiction treatment services, sets up demonstration programs in Western New York and other areas for long-term recovery and case-management programs, expands teaching of “age appropriate” information about drug abuse to junior high and high school students, and strengthens penalties for health providers and pharmacists engaged in illegal sales of controlled substances.
Not making it into the final bill was a provision pushed by a group of Western New York parents whose children died while addicted to drugs, to require specific instruction in drug addiction awareness to physicians as part of their continuing education requirements.
Among the loudest hall protestors Wednesday were advocates, including Buffalo area parents, of children with rare seizure conditions, pressing for legalization of medical marijuana. Some accused Cuomo, who has backed decriminalization efforts for small amounts of marijuana possession, of trying to scuttle a deal to permit the drug’s use for patients who fall into a limited number of categories of diseases or conditions, including cancer and AIDS.Cuomo said he is “less pliable” on compromising “because the consequences are very serious here.” He said he is open to the idea of medical marijuana, but that it is a complex undertaking to permit the growing and distribution of marijuana, which he called a “gateway drug’’ to harder narcotics.
Cuomo has sought to ban smoking the drug if OK’d for medicinal purposes – instead, letting it be dispensed in liquid formats – but advocates appeared united to try to block that effort, saying studies have shown a number of health conditions can benefit from smoking marijuana.
Cuomo and lawmakers are also negotiating a change to the system by which teachers are partly evaluated in their job performance through the use of standardized tests under the Common Core program. The state has relaxed the Common Core-based test’s impact on students because of what officials say were roll-out problems. Teachers say they should have the same benefit, and that they should not be judged this school year and next on student performance on the tests.Cuomo blamed the problem on the Board of Regents and state Education Department Commissioner John King for not “properly” handling the Common Core’s implementation.
Karen Magee, the president of the New York State United Teachers union, said the union wants a two-year delay in having the tests count against teachers. The tests are used for at least 20 percent – and as much as 40 percent – of a teacher’s evaluation, which could result in consequences as serious as dismissal.
“We need to reset. We need to start over,” Magee said in an interview.There have been concerns raised the state could lose federal funding if it tinkers too much with the Common Core standards, which Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver acknowledged as an issue on Wednesday. “I don’t believe there’s merit to it,” Magee said of those federal funding concerns.