However, state law mandates that the child must be enrolled by the age of 7, leaving it up to parents to decide when their child should begin school.
Last Tuesday, the Alabama House of Representatives voted to lower the mandatory age to 6 from 7. Although this would seem a good move to the non-partisan, outside-the-education-establishment layman — earlier learning means success down the line — the bill is not without controversy.
Within the bipolar GOP, there are those who agree with its author, Republican Rep. John Merrill of Tuscaloosa, that it is appropriate for the state to insist that students begin early so they will not fall behind. “The purpose of my bill is to reach those children who are falling through the cracks,” Merrill said.
On the other hand, there are Republicans like Rep. Jack Williams who oppose the bill because it “says to parents that the state knows better than you do what is best for your child” — one more example of government intruding into the lives of citizens.
While educators generally support beginning school early, some studies show that putting a child in a structured school environment too soon limits creativity and could have a negative impact on later learning.
Opponents of the bill did get it amended to allow parents to seek waivers from local school boards if they want to hold a child out until they were 7, though it is not certain if the amendment will survive in the state Senate.
Considering all this activity and debate, we might assume that this law will affect a large number of students, but by Merrill’s own figures, only 152 7-year-olds entered Alabama schools without having prior schooling. Many of these cases involved neglect or abuse.
While this page does not oppose lowering the mandatory enrollment age from 7 to 6, we wonder if legislative time would be better spent strengthening laws that protect children from the neglect and abuse that kept many out of school.
A neglected or abused child may find refuge from home in school, and that is a good thing. But will learning improve if they are still neglected and abused when they return home at the end of the day?
This bill may help some of the 152, but without more attention to why the students are held out of school, and without strict enforcement of child protection laws, lowering the enrollment age will not solve the problem. Many of these students will still fall through the cracks.