Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

When Should Kids Start School? In Illinois, A Possible Answer

    State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and State Board of Education member Tony Walker at the February meeting.

    Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

    State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and State Board of Education member Tony Walker at the February meeting.

    Indiana is one of 14 states where students don’t have to start school until age 7. But State Board of Education member Tony Walker wants to change that.

    At Wednesday’s board meeting, he floated the idea of pushing the compulsory attendance age to 5.

    “I think kindergarten is not optional anymore,” Walker told StateImpact. “It’s actually required in order to set the foundation for the kind of student performance we want in later years.”

    It’s not the first time Walker has brought up the issue. He says he tries to mention it every few months so it doesn’t drop off board members’ radar. He made his last appeal for mandatory kindergarten in January.

    One reason the compulsory attendance age is on Walker’s mind: State lawmakers in nearby Illinois just voted to lower the age by which students must start school to 6. In fact, all of Indiana’s neighbors are now part of the slight majority of states where the compulsory attendance age is 6.

    Eight states and the District of Columbia require students start school even sooner, at 5. In only two states — Washington and Pennsylvania — is the compulsory attendance age 8.

    But let’s take a closer look at Illinois, where Gov. Pat Quinn signed the change into law just last month. From Chicago Tribune reporters David Jackson and Gary Marx:

    The effort to lower the mandatory school age was supported by the Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union.

    The bill passed its final hurdle in the state Senate almost entirely along party lines after a debate in which GOP opponents said the measure would infringe on parental rights and warned of the potential cost.

    School finance experts and officials from other states that lowered their compulsory age have said the cost has been minimal because most families enroll their children in kindergarten — so the schools are providing desks and services whether the students attend regularly or not.

    Nearly a fifth of kindergarten and first grade students in Chicago Public Schools are considered “chronically truant,” missing more than four weeks of school, Jackson and Marx write.

    Walker, who represents Northwest Indiana on the State Board, says he’s heard from teachers it’s a problem on this side of the state line, too.

    “We’re spending a lot of time and resources just trying to catch students up to grades level in the first grade, second grade, third grade,” says Walker.

    With the increased emphasis on reading comprehension by grade three, Walker says he believes getting kids into kindergarten is more important than ever.

    “It just really doesn’t reflect the current reality,” says Walker. “I don’t think we can assume that because kids aren’t in school that somehow they’re learning.”

    Compulsory Attendance Age Is On Walker’s ‘Wish List’

    We’ve written before that if Walker does want to pursue mandatory kindergarten for 5-year-olds, he might have an ally in state superintendent Glenda Ritz.

    Students at a pre-kindergarten camp in Avon, Ind., play a counting game. The United Way program helps prepare students to start school.

    Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

    Students at a pre-kindergarten camp in Avon play a counting game. The United Way program helps students who might not otherwise be ready for kindergarten prepare to start school.

    “So when we get a young child in first grade that has not been to kindergarten, and has not been to preschool, then they are two years behind being successful as a first grader,” Ritz told StateImpact in October.

    Walker says working through Ritz is just one possibility, though — he says it’s just as likely board members could pursue changes to the compulsory attendance age as part of their own legislative agenda or through the executive branch, as the State Board is appointed by the governor. But he says any changes to statute will need to come from the General Assembly.

    State lawmakers may have already cleared one hurdle this past session when they voted to fully fund kindergarten.

    But cost questions remain. Illinois blogger Benjamin Yount makes an interesting point — that the increased cost to schools may be concentrated in a handful of districts that received few students before they turned 7. From Illinois Watchdog:

    But the governor did not say how many children the new law would add to classrooms next year, or how schools would pay for the new students.

    “We don’t know how many students would now begin at 6, instead of 7, or where they would enroll,” Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vannover said. “Based on the most recent enrollment data, we know that there was an increase of 5,700 students between kindergarten and first grade and an increase of 7,900 students between kindergarten and second grade.”

    In other words, Vannover said, the law would affect just a fraction of Illinois’ 2 million-plus students. But even at the local level, educators are scratching their heads. … Illinois Republicans have said adding more 6-year-olds — even a tiny number of them — would add $28 million to the cost of education.

    But Walker says he’s certain the cost of not educating every 5- and 6-year-old in the state is even higher.

    “To me, it’s almost a no brainer,” Walker says. “The arguments about funding and financing just pale in comparison to the benefit that would be added to the performance of our kids.”


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