Committee kills bill to raise kindergarten age

A proposal to raise the minimum age for children to start kindergarten–a move that would have delayed the start of public school for almost 10,000 students–has failed to win approval from the legislature’s Education Committee.

“We would have been shutting thousands of children out of school, and that’s not acceptable for me,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford and co-chairman of the committee.

The State Board of Education backed the change, agreeing with state education officials that the current wide disparity in kindergarten ages –which ranges from 4 and-a-half to 7 years old–makes it difficult for teachers to meet the needs of all the children in the classroom.

The Education Committee did vote to close the gap at the end of the range, unanimously approving a bill to require parents to enroll their children if they will turn 6 during the school year, thus keeping 7-year-olds out of kindergarten.

Some parents, particularly In the state’s more affluent communities, delay enrollment of their children in an effort to put their child at the front of the class, both for academic reasons and for sports. Fleischmann called the practice, known as red-shirting, “bad public policy.”

Jake Siegel, a senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, told members of the committee during a public hearing last week that delaying the start date would “worsen the achievement gap”–the educational disparity between poor and more affluent students–because low-income families would not able to afford to send their child to preschool. He testified the average cost of sending a child to preschool is $10,300.

The Early Childhood Alliance says overall, almost 80 percent of the children in the state received preschool education before entering kindergarten during the 2006-07 school year, the most recent year reported. However, in urban areas the percentages are much lower — 65 percent in Bridgeport, 68 percent in Hartford and 60 percent in Waterbury — than in higher-income areas where percentages are in the mid-90s.

Fleischmann said many members of the committee said the only way they could support increasing the start age is if the state paid for children from low-income to go to preschool. If funding was made available for additional preschool seats for those impacted by the change, Fleischmann said he would have his committee reconsider pushing back the start age.

“We can’t block them from kindergarten if there is no where else for them to go,” he said.

The state Department of Education estimated it would cost the state almost $37 million to pay for preschool for the 4,400 students from low-income families that would be affected by an increase in the starting age.

The committee bill does grant a waiver for 7 year olds if a physician determines they are not developmentally ready for kindergarten. There are currently 3,200 kindergarten students that will be almost 7 years old by the end of the school year — with communities like Westport, Redding, Easton, Darien and West Hartford having a higher proportion of these students.

Proposals to change the kindergarten age have been common over the last two decades, but lawmakers have never voted a bill out of committee, reports the legislature’s research team. Fleischmann said he has does not expect any opposition from lawmakers on what he calls a “compromise” in closing the age gap that currently exists in kindergarten classrooms across the state.

“What we have now is just bad, bad, bad public policy,” he said.

Ann Pratt, executive director of the Early Childhood Alliance, agrees that the age disparity in kindergarten classes is a bad policy, but is thankful lawmakers did not delay the entrance age.

“It does make sense to have the age range closer… but we are only supportive given there’s an alternative for that child,” she said.

Connecticut is one of the few states to allow such young children to enroll in kindergarten, according to a report released by the Education Commission of the States in November. But the report shows Connecticut is not unique when it comes to having older children in kindergarten.

“Most states understand parents are interested in making the decision of when to enroll their students in kindergarten,” said Melodye Bush, who authored the report.