- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

D.C. parents say a bill lowering the mandatory school entry age to 3 would force toddlers into classes before they are ready and would channel funds away from the cash-starved public school system.

The Compulsory School Attendance Amendment Act of 2001, put forward last summer by D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, would require all children who turn 3 before Dec. 31 in an academic year to attend early-childhood programs in public, private or parochial schools. Current D.C. law requires children who turn 5 before Dec. 31 to attend school.

Iris Toyer, chairman of Parents United for D.C. Schools, said children were "absolutely not ready" to attend school at 3.

"I would prefer it if the city would shore up its early-childhood programs and make more slots available. But I don't see how a regular school would accommodate these children. It would concern me to have a 3-year-old in the same building as a sixth-grader," she said.

Community members voiced their feelings on the bill at a town hall meeting last night, the first of four such meetings to be held over the next month. Some said it would give underprivileged children a jump start.

Sylvia Butler, a Northeast resident, said she had a 2-year-old great-granddaughter in an early-childhood program. "She is doing really well. She can tell the colors, she knows some of the alphabet."

"One is never too old to learn, and never too young to begin," she said.

Mr. Chavous said the bill would better prepare students for school and help reduce the disparity now seen among students starting first grade. "There are a lot of low-income homes where parents don't have an education … their children have not seen a letter block before they enter school, while others have seen their parents read and can read themselves. The disparity is striking," he said.

Mr. Chavous, who heads the council's education committee, said he came up with the idea after hearing parents, teachers and activists talking about young black males dropping out of school by fourth grade because they were frustrated and couldn't read.

He said the proposed early-childhood programs would aim to "stimulate young minds" to prepare them for first grade, but would not follow a rigid curriculum.

A report released yesterday by a commission appointed by Mr. Chavous said that it would help to have universal, rather than mandatory, early-childhood education program for 3- and 4-year-olds. The commission, made up of academics, educators and parents, was charged with developing a blueprint to implement the bill.

The report emphasized the importance of parent choice and raised concerns about funding to implement such a program.

It is estimated that the plan could cost up to $50 million in the first year for an estimated 10,000 students who would be added to the school system. The city currently has more than 4,000 students younger than 5 in optional programs.

D.C. Board of Education member William Lockridge said it was important that the money for the programs came from outside the school's budget. "I am really concerned that this doesn't impact existing programs," he said.

Mr. Chavous said the council would increase funding for schools to accommodate the programs, and not take away from existing ones. "It is going to call for a significant commitment from the city," he said.

Seven of the 13 council members are backing the bill, and Superintendent Paul Vance and Mayor Anthony A. Williams have expressed their support. The bill is now in the education committee where it may come up for vote in late spring, Mr. Chavous said.

If it becomes law, a pilot program for 4-year-olds would begin in fall 2003, and for 5-year-olds the year after, he said.

The bill will also cover home-schoolers. "I hate to see bureaucrats trying to take on something they have no right to do," said Lt. Col. Michael Rits, a D.C. parent who home-schools his four children.

"I am worried about this as a parent. Not even in China do they do something like this," he said.

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