Bid to raise kindergarten age revived, with pre-school guaranteed

A proposal raising the age for starting kindergarten, rejected last month by the legislature’s Education Committee, is being considered again by another committee–but this time money may be attached to ensure poor children don’t miss out on early education.

The move–originally proposed by the State Board of Education and now backed by many of the members on the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus–is expected to make 6,743 students too young to enter kindergarten, about half who are from low-income families.

Currently, the age of students in the same class can range from less than 5 years old to almost 7.

Education advocates and many lawmakers say that is too wide a developmental gap for teachers, and supported the plan to  increase the kindergarten age. Currently children can start kindergarten if they will be 5 years old by the following Jan. 1; the proposed change would have gradually pushed the date back to Sept. 1.

“Too many kids are entering kindergarten too early,” said Rep. Douglas McCrory, who has been a principal in Hartford for years and a member of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “We have to close that age gap.”

But even as though many back the increased age requirement, they also warn that turning younger students away from kindergarten with no education alternative would be harmful.

“There certainly needs to be other educational opportunities available to them,” said Theresa Hopkins-Staten, chair of the State Board of Education’s legislative committee.

It was the prospect of low-income students being excluded from kindergarten without the ability to attend preschool, which costs an average of $10,300 per year, that led the Education Committee to hold off on increasing the age. But Education Committee leaders made clear they support increasing the age if an alternative is available — and this proposal would would do just that.

Supporters hope approval by the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, which is now considering the bill, will solve that problem. The State Department of Education estimates providing preschool for these students will cost an estimated $55 to $65 million a year.

But not everyone is convinced providing these students free or reduced-price preschool will have a cost; including the co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven.

“We are talking about just shifting our funding from one arena to the next,” she said. “It’s not an extra dollar because no matter what, we are already paying for them to be in a classroom.”

The proposal requires students be 5 years old by Oct. 1 starting with the 2015-16 school year — which means students would need to be three months older to enter kindergarten. But they are also proposing that all low-income students who would then be too young be provided with a free or reduced-price seat in preschool. Whether local districts or the state picks up the bill if there are increased costs remains to be seen.

“To me closing that learning gap is an investment we ought to be making,” said Hopkins-Staten. “It’s being responsible that students are in the appropriate classroom and it will pay off.”

McCrory said since the change would not begin for four school years, lawmakers have time to figure out where the funding will come from.

“It’s an opportunity to prepare,” he said. “We know this is good policy… We have to find a way.”

Walker said she also supports delaying implementation.

“I believe in planning. I don’t believe into rushing into changing a system that has existed for a long time,” she said.

Connecticut is an outlier in the U.S. for allowing such young children to enter 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.

The Education Committee did approve a separate bill that would close gap at the end of the range by requiring parents to enroll their children if they will turn 6 during the school year, thus keeping 7-year-olds out of kindergarten except in special circumstances.