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Proposal would delay date some children start school

With birthdays late in the year, the two oldest children of state Sen. John Grant were still 5 years old when they entered first grade.

Now adults, "They turned out fine," Grant said. Still, they always seemed behind the other children, both physically and emotionally. His third child didn't start first grade until he was 6, and "It made all the difference in the world."

Now, Grant's personal experience could shape the education of thousands of Florida's youngsters.

As the powerful chairman of the Senate's Education Committee, the Tampa Republican is pushing a bill that would move up the cutoff date for children entering public school.

Currently, a child has to be 6 by Sept. 1 to enroll in first grade. Grant's bill, approved Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee, would require children to be 6 by Aug. 1 to enter first grade in 1997. The date would move to July 1 in 1998, and June 1 in 1999. The same dates would apply to children turning 5 to enter kindergarten.

"It's a matter of maturity," said Grant. "Three months can make a big difference in kids." Grant got advice from his wife, a teacher who has taught kindergarten and first grade. All of their children had late birthdays _ the two oldest in November and December, and the youngest in September.

Educators have long debated when a child is intellectually, physically and socially ready to enter school. In 1979, Florida law required children to be 5 by Jan. 1 of the school year to enter kindergarten. The date was moved back to Dec. 1 in 1980; to November 1 in 1981; to Oct. 1 in 1982 and to Sept. 1 in 1983.

A classroom is typically a hodgepodge of kids with different maturity levels. "Educational researchers and theorists have written much about this range of maturity, and some recommend delaying a child's entry into school so that he or she can be among the oldest children in the class rather than among the youngest," states a legislative analysis of Grant's bill.

Currently, no similar bill is moving through the state House. But it is early enough in the session for Grant's bill to be taken up in the House or tacked on to other legislation. And he has clout as chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Tuesday, his bill was approved within minutes by committee members, who neither asked questions nor offered debate.

It was that kind of day in the committee.

While Republicans in charge this year have promised a slower, more open and understandable legislative process, they don't always practice what they preach.

A flurry of bills whizzed through the Senate Education Committee, from legislation to set up random drug testing for middle and high school students to a 166-page bill to deregulate the operations of public schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike became upset as they were rushed through another lengthy bill to change laws and funding regarding adult and vocational education programs.

The 76-page combination of four Senate bills didn't even come with a staff analysis that usually condenses material and helps lawmakers better understand what they're voting on.

"I don't see why we have to do business this way," complained Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. Rushing through important legislation "is leaving this bad taste in everyone's mouth," he said. "I just wish you folks would be reasonable about this."

Grant didn't slow anything down. But Senate Ways & Means chairman Donald Sullivan, R-Seminole, assured senators that a hearing would be held in a budget committee. The bill passed.

Grant said later that he wanted to get the legislation through because it relates to a proposed education budget that senators want to finish working on today.