Beginning next fall, Connecticut will join the majority of other states in requiring children to be 5 years old before enrolling in kindergarten in September 2024.
But while there’s strong support for that age requirement among educators and developmental experts, the state’s transition to the new system has generated a flood of questions and concerns.
Lawmakers approved the measure during the 2023 legislative session. Under the new law, children entering kindergarten will need to have turned 5 years old by Sept. 1. The previous cutoff was Jan. 1.
That means about a third of all kids born in 2019 will have to wait a year longer to enter primary school or will have to apply for a waiver. That’s left families, school district leadership and many in the child care sector — even those who agree with the developmental reasons for the change — scrambling to get things in order.
“There may be an undue financial burden,” said Diane Gozemba, the Director of Early Childhood Initiatives at EASTCONN. “[Another] burden is that the districts really need to think about an intentional process.”
“The transition part is the hardest, because when the legislation passed, there wasn’t really a planning period,” Gozemba said.
Child care challenges
Early childhood educators and parents of infants and toddlers are particularly concerned about the additional strain the requirement will place on the early childhood education system, soon forced to accommodate 4-year-olds with fall birthdays for another year.
And without the funding to hire more teachers, the slots those older children remain in will no longer be available for new babies to enroll, meaning many new parents could have a harder time returning to work as they wait for their children to be accepted off growing waitlists. The annual cost of one year of child care is about $13,000 in Connecticut.
On Thursday, a broad coalition of more than 100 child care providers, advocates, parents, workforce development groups and others sent an open letter to Gov. Ned Lamont and legislative leaders, calling for an additional $50 million annually to support the early childhood education system in the state. The group, which included Child Care for Connecticut’s Future Coalition, Women’s Business Development Council, United Way of Connecticut and Social Venture Partners CT, said the legislative change could affect as many as 9,000 families.
“We commend the spirit of this policy change, which brings our state in alignment with most other states and aims to create conditions in which children enter kindergarten ready to thrive,” the letter states. “However, the short timeline and lack of resources identified to support effective implementation will have dire consequences on lower-income families, early childhood educators and the children this policy change aims to support.”
Courtney Parkerson of The Connecticut Project, which convened the signatories and authored the letter, said since the legislation passed, her organization has heard from a wide array of educators and parents with concerns about the change. The open letter was a way to get the issue on lawmakers’ radar ahead of next year’s legislative session, she said.
“We as a coalition want to encourage and motivate legislators to act, to take this issue up early in this coming session and to identify resources [needed] to implement this change,” Parkerson said. “The implementation is what we’re focused on and getting that right.”
School district woes
Public school districts face the challenge of navigating and effectively communicating the new changes without much guidance from the state.
According to the law, public schooling must be “open to all children 5 years of age and over … by the first day of September of any school year.” Families can submit a request to their principal to enroll their child at a younger age. The law also specified the student would need to undergo an assessment, conducted by school leadership, to “ensure that admitting such a child is developmentally appropriate.”
The law’s vague wording has left room for different interpretation. Earlier this month, Westport Public Schools announced it developed a “transitional plan” because the “timing of this change” could cause challenges for families.
“Any child who is not 5 years old on or before September 1, 2024 but turns 5 before January 1, 2025, may be admitted to kindergarten upon written request by the child’s parent or guardian to the school principal,” the district said. “The process for early entrance to kindergarten beyond the 2024-25 school year is currently under consideration and a specific procedure will be forthcoming.”
The state Department of Education issued further guidance soon after, about two weeks after Westport announced its plan, but told the CT Mirror it had been in the works since the legislative session ended in June.
The additional guidance, “New Entry Age for Kindergarten: Considerations for Connecticut Schools,” specifically stated, “the assessment process for determining the developmental appropriateness of an underage child seeking early admission to kindergarten is not discretionary and must be implemented if requested in writing.”
The department did not provide specific guidelines about what assessments must show or how they must be tested but did say “schools have discretion in determining whether ‘an assessment’ will be a stand-alone tool or a holistic measure of a child’s developmental level.”
Westport Public School officials did not respond for comment regarding the new guidance from the state.
And although the document from the Department of Education provided some additional direction for how districts may tackle waivers, it’s also left many unanswered questions, Gozemba said, including when waivers need to be applied for or issued, when assessments should be conducted, whether a waiver would be transferable to another district, and what kind of budget implications may arise.
“In reality, the legislature could get enough pressure that they decide to hold off for a year or two. But in interim, districts still need to develop a process. Districts need to be able to communicate [their plans] and have them in place by, I would say, ideally, the beginning of the year, like January or February,” Gozemba said, adding that the state may need a regional approach to maintain consistency between towns.
“Requests have to be in by a certain time by policy, but then certainly for the families that show up the week before school, they’re still going to have to honor some kind of process. If you need to put in a waiver by June, that’s not realistic for some families who just moved here,” Gozemba said. “We still need a fair process where it also doesn’t feel like we’re discriminating against anybody who thinks their child is able to go to kindergarten. … Families need to be engaged in the process. … It needs to feel like having a conversation with families and it’s not just a rubber stamp of ‘Yes’ or “No’.”