Kindergarten age bill would hurt children and burden working parents

There’s a new tax being proposed in the legislature right now.  Not a tax being levied on owners of luxury yachts, or fancy new cars, but a tax that would hit working families across the economic spectrum, and would cost them, in total, millions of dollars a year. The bill doesn’t call it a tax, but, in effect, that’s what it is.

What is it?  It’s the bill that would change the kindergarten cut-off date, requiring that children turn 5 by Oct. 1 of the school year rather than by Jan. 1, the current rule. This will keep over 6,700 children out of kindergarten for an extra year, forcing working parents to come up with, on average, $10,383 for another year of full-time child care.

It’s a change that hurts many and benefits none – since parents who feel their children are not ready for kindergarten are already entitled to “red-shirt” those children, or hold them from starting school.

The change doesn’t just hurt parents’ pocketbooks; it hurts the kids. The proponents of the legislation claim it will “level the playing field” by putting poor minority children on par, age-wise, with wealthier children who are statistically more likely to be red-shirted.  But extensive research shows that low-income students start off behind their higher-income counterparts primarily because they have less preparation, not because they are younger. Studies show, too, that, despite what anxious parents are led to believe, younger students are no more likely to have difficulty paying attention, cooperating, or making friends.

Age is not the issue.  Preparation is.  And changing the cut-off means that our most vulnerable children are likely to be even further behind their peers when they finally do start kindergarten, because their families simply cannot afford the high-quality preschool that would put them on track to school success.  Connecticut already has the largest achievement gap of any state in the country.  Changing the cut-off would make it even bigger.

When the legislature’s Education Committee held a public hearing on this bill, back in February, people from all sectors – superintendents, educators, parents, and early childhood education providers – came out against it in force, arguing that changing the cut-off date without expanding state-subsidized preschool would hurt children and families.  And the Education Committee seemed to hear them, killing the bill.

But then the very same language that the public opposed was put into another, unrelated bill, and quietly moved on to the Appropriations Committee.  Additional language was added that would have expanded subsidized preschool for some of the children, but when it became clear that this was going to have a high price tag, that language was removed.  The Appropriations Committee passed the bill anyway, sending the change in the kindergarten cut-off to the House and Senate for final action.

There’s a separate issue here, which is that the law, as it stands, allows parents to red-shirt their children until they are 7, leading to a large age range within classrooms.  There’s an easy fix to this: pass a law requiring children to start kindergarten if they are 5 by the beginning of the school year.  This would reduce the potential age range in classrooms to only 16 months.  (Currently pending legislation would mandate children start kindergarten if they are 6 by the beginning of the school year, but this would still allow an age range of 28 months within a classroom.)  Parents of children whose birthdays fall between September and December would retain the option to delay kindergarten for a year if they feel their children are not socially, academically, or physically ready for school, while parents who feel their children are ready have the option to send them.

That’s a change that benefits everyone, and hurts nobody.  It does two good things: empowers parents to make the choice that is right for their children, and reduces the age range in classrooms without imposing on working families a hidden “day-care tax” that they can ill-afford.  That is the kind of change we need, rather than an ill-conceived law that hurts everybody, from the poor on up.

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