Thousands of Tennessee children would be required to pass a "maturity test" every year to enter kindergarten under a new bill passed by the state House of Representatives Wednesday.
Under current law, Tennessee children must be 5 years old by Sept. 30 to enter kindergarten. House Bill 2566 would shift the cutoff date forward to Aug. 31 in fall 2013 and Aug. 15 beginning the year after, ensuring that all kindergarteners are at least five years old upon matriculation. Children who are still 4 years old by the cutoff dates could enter kindergarten with their same-year peers only if they show the maturity of a 5-year-old on a standardized test.
The bill is sponsored by Republican state Rep. Glen Casada and passed by a 68-30 vote. The companion bill awaits a Senate vote.
"There are an element in education that want to get children a universal education from the cradle to the grave. I disagree with that," Casada told the Associated Press. "We want those young people at home with their family for the first several years of their life. That's where the most learning is and that's where the foundation sits."
Casada told the Tennessean that "the trend is to start older," and the proposal stems from recommendations by the state's kindergarten teachers. While the measure's proponents say students who start kindergarten at an older age are more likely to succeed, Casada notes that there is no existing research to support that argument.
Still, Republican state Rep. John Fogerty says a maturity test makes more sense than a birthday requirement because no specific date can determine whether a child is mature enough to attend kindergarten. He also told WPLN that the measure would help kindergarten teachers who struggle with children who "aren't necessarily emotionally, experientially or culturally as mature as they should be."
According to the Tennessean, estimates from legislative staffers show that the measure could save as much as $21 million a year for the state and $11 million for districts. It would also affect the approximately 4,200 students in the state that have birthdays between Aug. 15 and Sept. 30.
The savings led Democrats and other critics to argue that the proposal aims to lay off teachers and deny students of early childhood learning opportunities, as schools will use the decreased kindergarten enrollment as reason to fire teachers. Democratic state Rep. Sherry Jones said savings from the bill should be allocated to pre-kindergarten programs, which would be faced with even longer waiting lists for already limited slots.
"Unless we do that, this really defeats the purpose of education," Jones told AP. "Not everybody can stay home and take care of their children like they would like to. People have to work to eat."
Legislative proposals in Tennessee have garnered national attention as the state House pass in February the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill, which restricts references to homosexuality in schools, limiting all sexually related instruction to "natural human reproduction science" in kinder garten through eighth grade.
The state's controversial "Monkey Bill" also became law earlier this month after Republican Gov. Bill Haslam declined to act, legalizing the measure that permits teachers to challenge "controversial" subjects like evolution and climate change. The state Senate also passed this month additional language to Tennessee's abstinence-only sex education curriculum that warns against "gateway sexual activity," which many have interpreted to include discouragement of anything that has potential to lead to sex -- including kissing, hand-holding and cuddling.