Malloy: Raise kindergarten age even without expanded pre-school

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Friday the state should move to increase the minimum age for kindergarten, without waiting until it can afford expanded pre-school for low-income students whose public education is delayed.

“I think we should be setting the age based on what we know about the likelihood of success, or increased opportunities for success, based on appropriately aged and grouping students,” he said in an interview.

The proposal, made originally by former Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan, is now incorporated in proposed bills that will have a public hearing sometime in February. The idea is to narrow the age range for students in kindergarten, which now includes children from 4 to almost 7 years old.

Malloy and other education officials said such a wide developmental range makes it difficult to meet the needs of all the children in the class.

“It is extremely hard for kindergarten teachers,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, a longtime early childhood educator and co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee.

But Bye and others fear delaying the start of kindergarten could hurt children in low-income households unless the state also expands pre-school opportunities–an expensive proposition in a tight budget year.

“Until we solve where these children with low income parents will end up, I can’t support changing the age,” Bye said.

But Malloy said the fact that some children would start school later should not override the need to ensure that children should not be entering kindergarten before they are ready.

“I think those things should not be linked,” he said. “I am a believer in universal access, which I hope will ultimately lead to a system where the state plays a role in making sure no child is denied an educational experience because of financial circumstances. But I don’t think that should be tied to the age of a student when they begin kindergarten.”

Connecticut currently allows students to be enrolled in kindergarten if they will turn 5 by Jan. 1 of that school year. The state Department of Education’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.

The state Department of Education estimates 4,400 children from low-income families would be deemed too young to enter kindergarten. McQuillan’s proposal–which the state Board of Education unanimously endorsed–included appropriating almost $37 million a year to pay for low income children to attend preschool.

Malloy said last month he “wholeheartedly endorse[s]” providing preschool for these low-income students to fill any gaps created, but this week he said his budget will not likely focus on increasing funding for that initiative.

“I’ve acknowledged because of the financial state of the state that my desire to build [universal preschool] will take longer,” he said.

But Bye said until a free or affordable alternative preschool option is available for low-income students, she does not expect the initiative to gather enough support among legislators.

“These kids will have to wait a whole other year to go to school. And for what we know about brain development, that year is crucial,” she said.

Connecticut and Vermont are the only states that require local school districts to allow kindergarten enrollment for students with a birthday up to Jan. 1, according to a report released by the Education Commission of the States in November. Most states have cut-off dates sometime between Aug. 21 and Oct. 16.