Education commissioner proposes increasing kindergarten enrollment age

Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan is proposing an increase in the minimum age for students to enter kindergarten–a move that could delay the start of public school for almost 10,000 students a year.

McQuillan told members of the State Board of Education Wednesday the proposal will narrow the age range for students in kindergarten, which now includes children from 4 to almost 7 years old. Such a wide developmental range makes it difficult to meet the needs of all the children in the class, he said.

“What we currently have is not effective,” he said. “This is a huge age span and is very, very bad policy.”

Connecticut currently allows students to be enrolled in kindergarten if they will turn 5 by Jan. 1 of that school year. Most states have cut-off dates sometime between Aug. 31 and Oct. 16, according to the State Department of Education and the Education Commission of the States.

McQuillan’s proposal would push the cut-off date back a month at a time, until by the 2014-15 school year, children would have to turn 5 by Sept. 1 in order to enroll in kindergarten. Ultimately, the change would affect about a quarter of some 40,000 kindergarten students in the state.

“No one would be disadvantaged,” McQuillan said.

But not everyone agrees, including State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature’s education committee. McQuillan’s proposal would likely need to be approved by his committee.

“It’s sounds to me a bit divorced from reality. Having access to kindergarten or education for everyone is important,” he said.

Sherry Linton-Massiah, an early-education advocate for the Connecticut Association of Human Services, said it’s true that not all children are ready for kindergarten before age 5, noting that she chose to pay “a small fortune” to send her son to preschool for an extra year. But not everyone can afford that.

“Do some children start kindergarten too early? Yes, absolutely,” she said. “But we can’t leave these children with no learning environment.”

Fleischmann agreed. “It just sounds problematic to stop providing kindergarten to some families in the middle of a fiscal crisis.”

McQuillan’s proposal also includes state funding of preschool for an estimated 4,700 children from low-income families. Officials at the SDE estimate that would cost almost $37 million every year, some of which would be offset by the state not having to pay for a portion of kindergarten for those students.

“This is not about the costs. This is an education matter and providing education in a more effective way,” said Brian Mahoney, the chief financial officer at the SDE.

Fleischmann said picking up the cost of preschool for only some of the 10,000 children affected by the age change would be unfair to families who don’t get the benefit.

“Those parents would be screaming,” he said.

Linton said she could support the commissioner’s proposal if preschool was paid for all 10,000 students that would now be deemed too young for kindergarten. But with the state facing multi-billion dollar deficits, that’s unlikely to happen.

Shifting all these students from kindergarten to preschool programs worries Mary Loftus Levine, Connecticut Education Association’s director of public policy.

“We prefer teachers who are certified working with these children. Some preschools pay so poorly and their requirements are not as strict; it’s hard to attract good teachers. You need more than just a babysitter,” she said.

Current law does require by 2015 every preschool classroom funded by the state be staffed with a teacher with a degree or certificate in early childhood education, child development or related field.

McQuillan said he understands this proposal is likely to face significant opposition from lawmakers, and said raising awareness to the effects of this huge age disparity is the key.

“This is just bad policy,” he said Thursday.

McQuillan is also proposing parents of older children be required to get a waiver to enroll their children in kindergarten to prevent so many 7 year old students.